24 Chinese Rooms — Thinking With Meat, Thinking With Metal

Days to Centenary: 224

John Searle is an American philosopher who has proposed one of the most commonly cited arguments against the possibility of genuine artificial intelligence in a computing device.

His position — to oversimplify wildly — is that a computing device can convincingly imitate conscious communication without actually understanding what it’s saying at all, in apparent contradiction to the proposition underlying the Turing Test. His notion is called the Chinese Room Argument and its main points are nicely summarized by the one-minute video below.

Some Searle-ites contend that Searle’s position has been misunderstood by his detractors.  This short video provides some examples.

A detailed description of the argument, as well as of counterarguments, can be found at this page of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

One person who can’t really be accused of oversimplifying Searle’s arguments is one of his most vociferous opponents, Ray Kurzweil — an inventor, futurist, and fairly successful predictor of events — who used an entire chapter of his book Are We Spiritual Machines (the chapter is reproduced in full here) to rebut Searle’s position point by point and to demonstrate where Searle had misunderstood, or in some cases may have misrepresented, his (Kurzweil’s) arguments and those of other AI researchers.

I  have yet to find a good video of Kurzweil directly addressing this issue, but the video below will certainly orient you to who he is.  The video is the trailer for a documentary about Kurzweil called Transcendant Man.

[Note: Just because Kurzweil doesn't miss the subtle points of Searle's arguments doesn't in itself make Kurzweil right, it just makes him rigorous. I happen to think he's right, but there isn't enough room in this post to comprehensively debate the point and, frankly, as a mere interested hobbyist I'm not sure my views add much.]

Professor Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, has contributed to the debate, among other things pointing out that even if Searle is right his point may well be irrelevant.

If anyone out there thinks they have found the knockout punch in the Chinese Room debate, by all means send it in to nas [at] homoartificialis.com and I’ll do an update to this post.

Now, why does the title say twenty-four Chinese rooms?  Because of an irrelevant-but-awesome video about a particular Chinese room.  The video can be found here. The still images below are screenshots.

Screen shot 01 from A Tiny Apartment Transforms Into 24 Rooms: Official Video

Screen shot 01 from A Tiny Apartment Transforms Into 24 Rooms: Official Video

Screen shot 02 from Screen shot 01 from A Tiny Apartment Transforms Into 24 Rooms: Official Video

Screen shot 02 from Screen shot 01 from A Tiny Apartment Transforms Into 24 Rooms: Official Video

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One Response to 24 Chinese Rooms — Thinking With Meat, Thinking With Metal

  1. Jonathan says:

    Here’s the knockout punch: what would Searle say is the nature of our perspective on the Chinese Room?

    A perspective on a thing is either first personal or third personal in relation to that thing.

    If we’re supposed to be taking a first personal perspective on the room, then there’s a problem: pretty much the whole point of the argument is that there can’t be a first personal perspective when it comes to a Chinese Room. So Searle can’t coherently allow this interpretation of his argument.

    But if we say we’re taking a third personal perspective on the room then the argument doesn’t work either. All that’s going on in this case is that we’re looking at something from a third person point of view and failing to find first personal properties. This is what you’d expect whether the thing has first personal properties or not (consider looking at a human being from a third person point of view). So this interpretation of Searle’s argument is coherent, but doesn’t deliver his conclusion.

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