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Chinese Room

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Hainsch, David (21. Nov 2018, within the course "Odyssey of Philosophy and Information", facilitated by J.M.Díaz at HM)

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The Chinese Room argument by John Searle(1980), is a thought experiment meant to show that syntactical and logical capabilities do not automatically result in a semantic understanding of the matter at hand. It is a contradiction to the numerous claims, at the time, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may soon be able to understand language, a statement deduced from the fast advances in programming in the 70’s. Beyond that Searle proved the definition of the “strong“ A.I. to be implausible.

1.    Historical Overview

John Searle’s thought experiment dubbed „the Chinese Room“, which was part of his paper „Minds, Brains and Programs“ published in 1980, is part of an argument against the proposition, that a machine (a brief and general definition may be found in the voice on The Turing Test, §1) given sufficient commands to process input with and return the right output would, in turn, possess a mind.

Several thought experiments have compared a mechanical way of operating, or rather computing, with that of a human's and how mechanical computing does not allow thought, unlike the brain’s operational happenings.

The earliest example was Gottfried Leibniz‘ Mill. Leibniz proposed to create a mechanical machine that would be made as to be able to perceive, feel and think. If one were to increase the size of this machine to the point at which a human would be able to enter it just like he enters a mill, he would only see moving parts interacting with one another. Not once would you see and be able to determine a thought or perception being transported. Through this analogy he concluded that mechanics alone cannot create mental states, such as thought, emotion and perception.

Later in 1948, Alan Turing proposed his Paper Machine. This is simply put, a set of instructions written in English, intended to allow someone - A - to play chess without even knowing that he is. Every situation on the board has a unique and abstract ID, as does every change of the situation that could decide upon. How input is managed and output enacted is irrelevant, as long as A is not the one responsible for these tasks. Now by simply associating the abstract input phrases with the corresponding output phrases A would be making a move. If looked at from the outside A would be playing chess, yet A would have no idea what his actions translate into. This setup has a remarkable resemblance with that of the Chinese room.

The latest predecessor to Searle’s argument was that of The Chinese Nation, which also goes by The Chinese Gym or The China Brain. It makes the assumption that, if a mental state is merely the product of the interactions between neurons, then any mental state could be replicated by the Chinese Nation behaving like a brain. Every Chinese Citizen takes the place of one neuron, and every signal exchanged by neurons is represented by a phone call between two citizens. If the entirety of China would place calls in exactly the way signals are causally transmitted in the brain for a certain emotion, theoretically, the Nation of China would feel that exact emotion. And therein lies the error. How could the Nation of China, an entity that is not at all an intelligent or even a living entity feel an emotion? This proves that there is another factor in the creation of mental states, other than causality of internal processes.

2.    The Experiment

Searle’s Argument is focused on showing the gap between syntactical and semantical understanding.

The setup is as follows. A native English speaker, who speaks not a word of Chinese, is locked in a room. In the said room he is provided with a booklet that acts as an instruction set, and a complete database of Chinese characters and the utensils to write them with. Native Chinese speakers on the outside now start writing down questions in Chinese, on a piece of paper slid under the door for example, to ask the person inside. The people on the outside never get to meet the person locked inside. This is the basic setup of the Imitation Game used in the Turing test. The person inside takes the question and uses the booklet to determine which characters he has to return, simply by following the syntactic rules the booklet gives. He never understands a word of what he reads or writes, he simply answers what the instruction booklet tells him to, with respect to which characters he received beforehand. If the Instruction set is extensive and well enough written, he will return enough correct answers to convince the people on the outside that he is to be considered intelligent and that he does, in fact, speak Chinese, therefore, he will pass the Turing test. Despite this, the person inside does not understand Chinese at all, yet pass the test. And the same goes for any Machine, as it only syntactically determines it’s output with respect to the input received beforehand.

3.    Conclusion

And herein lies the point Searle formed into a statement. The fact that the computer can follow an instruction set and convince a human that it is intelligent, by dialoguing in any given language does not automatically allow the assumption that the computer semantically understands said language, in the way a person fluent in it does.

In 2010, Searle publicly stated his conclusion "that the implementation of the computer program is not by itself sufficient for consciousness or intentionality"(Cole, 2015). The Ability to compute does not result in the capability to semantically understand and form outputs with an intention in mind. A computer’s way of operation is purely syntactic, and if any other being were to behave like it, it would not start understanding semantically. Therefore the same instruction set performed by a human will not result in an understanding of Chinese. In conclusion, to understand, it requires more than just a difference in physical manifestation.

And thus Searle contradicted the claim of so-called “Strong” A.I. being able to understand semantics solely through following an appropriate programming. The Concept of “Weak AI“, a form of AI that only replicates intelligent behaviour and does not understand semantics, is not once touched by Searle’s Experiment. Instead, he only proves that the concept of a strong AI cannot be true. Any program is a set of syntactical rules which a machine follows. And by the concept of strong A.I. there exists a program that, if being executed, allows the machine to understand the semantics behind its actions, though merely inheriting the programming to enact said actions. The Chinese Room argument, however, clearly proves that semantics cannot be reached by mere syntactical behaviour. Thus the claim of "Strong AI" is proven wrong. The only remaining classification of Intelligence available is into “weak“ and “true“.

4.    Addendum

Analysing the Conclusion, one can easily determine, that allowing a machine to be able to possess a mind and form thoughts requires more than a syntactic programming, no matter how extensive and complete it may be. Since we also know that a difference in physical manifestation still gives the same results, this may as well be applied to any Natural Intelligence. If any Intelligence is to be formed, the being has to be able to do more than perceive, and follow and apply logical instructions regarding the syntax of the perceived. What more has to be present to allow “True” Intelligence is beyond this experiment.


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