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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Philosoraptor Enters The Chinese Room

Imagine a man alone in an empty room. All he has for amusement is a special book. No, not like that, you perverts. This book has a set of rules that matches up any string of Chinese symbols with an appropriate and intelligible string of symbols in response. This sadistic setting is the backdrop for a thought experiment by John Searle which seeks to show that Artifical Intelligence is impossible.

Imagine that a native Chinese speaker finds the room and decides to start scribbling messages on a piece of paper and sending them inside. The man inside the room accepts this message with glee. He then looks up the symbols in the book, produces a response and sends this back to the Chinese speaker. In principle, the Chinese speaker could continue this conversation ad infinitum, sending messages in and getting messages in response seemingly written by a proficient Chinese speaker. From the outside, the room is passing the Turing test for artificial intelligence, which is the ability of a machine to fool a human into believing that they are conversing with another person.

But here’s the catch: the room produces a remarkably proficient simulation of understanding but it lacks one crucial ingredient. Inside the room, there is only symbolic manipulation—inputs, outputs, a complex series of if/then rules, and a mindless homunculus which handles the data. But true understanding requires a semantic component as well, which attaches meaning to the symbols. If the room lacks any of this, it lacks a true understanding of Chinese. Searle takes this to mean that mere information processing is not enough for thinking, and thus that a machine can never be conscious in the same way as a person. Heavy. Perhaps there is some spark of human essence that computers will always lack. I, for one, would welcome this conclusion if it prevented us from being subjugated by our new robot overlords.

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