The Chinese room argument
I love problems with funny names. In artificial intelligence circles, one such problem is called the Chinese room argument. Ostensibly it is an argument against so-called Strong Artificial Intelligence (Strong AI). Strong AI says that simply running a program imbues the system with “mentality,” one aspect of which is understanding. So, for example, I can read a story in Chinese but I won’t have the slightest understanding of it since I don’t know any Chinese. J.R. Searle gave the following argument against Strong AI (called the Chinese room argument).
Imagine a monolingual English speaker/reader in a room. The person has on a table an instruction booklet, pen, and paper. Notes written in Chinese are then passed into the room. The instruction booklet tells the person things like, “If you see Chinese character X on a slip of paper and Chinese character Y on another slip of paper, write Chinese character Z on your pad.” Chinese speakers outside the room label the slips going in ‘stories’ and ‘questions’ and the slips coming out ‘answers to questions.’ The instruction manual can be as sophisticated as you’d like. The question is, does our English speaker/reader – who only speaks and reads English – understand the Chinese, i.e. the details of the story and the associated questions and answers? Searle says no. To Searle, the room and the English speaker/reader is a computer and you can run as sophisticated a program as you’d like, but that it cannot understand Chinese regardless of the program. As such, Searle claims no program can be constitutive of understanding.
There have been critiques to Searle’s argument and the first one that comes to mind is adaptability. In a sense, for example, one might say that Akismet, the WordPress spam filter, “learns” what is spam and what is not and thus “understands” spam. Likewise, linguistic programs can “learn” language. Is there not an element of understanding inherent in learning?
In any case, a completely different set of arguments against Searle’s Chinese room has recently been published by Mark Sprevak in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Amazingly enough, BJPS happens to have a considerable amount of freely available content and, hence, you can read all about Sprevak’s arguments here.