Superpositional thinking and Chinese rooms

Much of my thinking on certain topics is beginning to coalesce in interesting ways.  I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with Ken Wharton about quantifying entanglement and time symmetry, helped along in my thinking by the very patient Rob Spekkens and Matt Leifer.  Then, along comes Christopher Altman to tell me he’s actually been working on something along the lines of what I had floating around in my head (my thinking was partially spurred on by some of Kelly Neill’s posts). What have I got so far? Well, let’s take a look at the Chinese room argument again from a new perspective.

I think one of the main problems with the Chinese room argument is that it does not quantify understanding. What does it mean to understand something? Sprevak does not discuss this in his recent article. In a previous post, I argued that perhaps true AI would require quantum computers since real thinking likely involves superpositional thinking. But is that enough to provide understanding?

It isn’t if we use the Chinese room argument again. Superpositional thinking on the part of the English speaker in our Chinese room would mean he/she could simultaneously prepare several pieces of paper, C, that could be passed out of the room again. In essence, it means he/she could anticipate the input. But does this necessarily constitute understanding? Nope. Our English speaker still could remain blissfully ignorant to the meaning behind the Chinese symbols. So, in itself, superpositional thinking does not provide true understanding. All I can see by this argument is that it could provide a way to speed up the process carried out by our English speaker. But we already know that quantum computing is faster than classical computing for many types of problems.

For our English speaker to truly understand the ideas behind the Chinese symbols they need to be translated into English (or someone needs to explain them to him, which is essentially the same thing). So, does translation then produce understanding? Again, no. It is still possible for the English speaker to execute the program and he/she at least understands more of the symbols, but it is akin to recoding the program into the native language of the operating system (the English speaker). But there are plenty of things written in English that I don’t understand. I may understand the individual words, but I don’t understand the way in which they are combined. For a rudimentary example of this, imagine I’m a spy and intercepted the code “The jackal screams at midnight.” I know what all of those words mean individually, but I have absolutely no idea of their context. It seems to me, then, that true understanding requires context. As it turns out, Aerts, Broekaert, and Gabora considered this about eight years ago. More recently, Svozil has made in-roads into this exact process by proposing a context translation principle.

Thus, I suspect true artificial intelligence will, perhaps, not only need superpositional thinking but also some sort of context translation ability.

Now where does time symmetry come into all of this? Well, I’ll hold off on that conjecture for the moment but I will say that I think, at the microscopic level, the universe is perfectly reversible and time-symmetric but that this doesn’t scale well. More on these thoughts later…


4 Responses to “Superpositional thinking and Chinese rooms”

  1. […] sort of time travel storyline that hints at some of the things I’ve been discussing here, here, here, and here, as well as what’s been discussed over at The Observer Effect. It […]

  2. I have been thinking about some of these problems, but I am not a physicist, nor even a scientist.

    I think what you need is forgetting. Normal humans forget. The incidence of information in our environments heavily affects what we remember and what we forget. Moreover, the noise which results from forgetting allows non-local relationships or regularities to emerge when local relationships or fine-grained detail is de-emphasized, removed, or varies too widely to become ‘weighted’ or retained. My feeling is that adding realistic human forgetting patterns to these superpositional models of content can provide you with the context you need.

    I think appreciating the positive role noise plays in these sorts of situations also might cut against your symmetry of time stuff.

    Various forgetting patterns can give you context and pattern-completers which are sensitive to non-local relationships and regularities. All without ‘pure understanding’ as you (and Searle) use it.

    I apologize for the vagueness, but I am not a specialist and have not worked out these thoughts too well.

  3. But if something which needs to be translated is not considered to be understood, then you don’t understand English either. After all, English words only symbolically represent ideas in your mind; you have to translate the word jackal into the idea jackal or it remains useless to you. If you don’t know what a word means, then you don’t understand it only in that you are unable to translate it. You can’t associate it with what it represents, so it becomes a useless jumble of letters.

    So then it boils down to ideas, which makes everything suddenly intangible and abstract again. What you actually understand are ideas- but then, how do you define an idea? How would you program an idea into something?

    … Hah. This is from February of three years ago. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      🙂 Well, thanks for contributing anyway! You have an excellent point, by the way. How does one “program” an idea? How do we capture the subtleties of life? Personally, I doubt it’s fully possible.

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