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Replies to the Chinese Room Argument

September 4th, 2010 No comments

Criticisms of the narrow Chinese Room argument against Strong AI have often followed three main lines, which can be distinguished by how much they concede:

  1. Some critics concede that the man in the room does not understand Chinese, but hold that at the same time there is some other thing that does understand. These critics object to the inference from the claim that the man in the room does not understand Chinese to the conclusion that no understanding has been created. There might be understanding by a larger, or different, entity. This is the strategy of The Systems Reply and the Virtual Mind Reply. These replies hold that there could be understanding in the original Chinese Room scenario.
  2. Other critics concede Searle’s claim that just running a natural language processing program as described in the CR scenario does not create any understanding, whether by a human or a computer system. However, these critics hold that a variation on the computer system could understand. The variant might be a computer embedded in a robotic body, having interaction with the physical world via sensors and motors (“The Robot Reply”), or it might be a system that simulated the detailed operation of an entire brain, neuron by neuron (“the Brain Simulator Reply”).
  3. Finally, some critics do not concede even the narrow point against AI. These critics hold that the man in the original Chinese Room scenario might understand Chinese, despite Searle’s denials, or that the scenario is impossible. For example, critics have argued that our intuitions in such cases are unreliable. Other critics have held that it all depends on what one means by “understand” points discussed in the section on the Intuition Reply. Others (e.g. Sprevak 2007) object to the assumption that any system (e.g. Searle in the room) can run any computer program. And finally some have argued that if it is not reasonable to attribute understanding on the basis of the behavior exhibited by the Chinese Room, then it would not be reasonable to attribute understanding to humans on the basis of similar behavioral evidence (Searle calls this last the “Other Minds Reply”).

In addition to these responses, Critics also independently argue against Searle’s larger claim, and hold that one can get semantics (that is, meaning) from syntactic symbol manipulation, including the sort that takes place inside a digital computer, a question discussed in the section on syntax and semantics.

The Chinese Room argument

September 4th, 2010 No comments
The Chinese Room argument

Image via Wikipedia

The Chinese Room argument, devised by John Searle, is an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence. The argument centers on a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters, such that to those outside the room it appears as if someone in the room understands Chinese.

The argument is intended to show that while suitably programmed computers may appear to converse in natural language, they are not capable of understanding language, even in principle. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. Searle’s argument is a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence, and the argument has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.