Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Chinese Room

For millennium humans have struggled to answer the question- what is mind? Is the mind a substance separate from the body? Or are our thoughts merely a mode or extension of chemicals and electricity? Is materialism the final answer to the mind-body problem? How do we mix mind and body, which are two different things?

Many proponents of materialism support 'strong artificial intelligence' or strong AI. They believe that ultimately computers will evolve to the point where they can be said to possess independent consciousness, or thought. Adding the right 'program' will make them "human" They will pass the Turing test

( Alan Turing was a British scientist who helped win World War Two with his master code breaking. Turing was the first computer scientist and died in 1954 under suspicious circumstances. The 'Turing test' was a test meant to show that a computer could become indistinguishable from a human). For this discussion, the mind is considered to be 'software.'

John R. Searle has challenged the strong AI crowd- he says computers can never 'think' like humans or become aware. Here is his thought experiment:

Imagine a locked room. This room has a port where pieces of paper are slipped in. Chinese characters are written on these pieces of paper. Inside this room there is a man whose job is to translate these messages,from one Chinese script to another Chinese script. But he doesn't understand one word of Chinese. He has in this room a book, that, while written in the Chinese language that he doesn't know, it still allows him to compare the slipped- in pages of Chinese script to the proper characters in the book, thus allowing him to translate the mysterious chinese script into the intended Chinese message. He then pushes the new translations through a second port, to the outside world. Throughout all this, the man neither understands one word of the original message, nor one word of the book, nor the translated result. The meaning of the message is completely unknown to him- he does not understand Chinese, and that is the only language that he has been working with from start to finish.

To an outside observer, the man inside the room understands Chinese. But he doesn't. He passes the Turing test, but he is still ignorant; if a human cannot know what he's doing in this situation, could a computer?
Searle's argument was first published in 1980 and is considered to be a classic and precise refutation of the idea that man -made machines will ever be able to independently think and have awareness similar to humans. The theory holds true if you assume that the whole can never be greater than the sum of it's parts....if you combine the book and the man, do you then have understanding?

(more later)


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