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The Chinese Room Argument

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The Chinese Room Argument

The Chinese Room argument was developed by John Searle in the early 1980’s. The argument was designed to prove that strong artificial intelligence was not possible. While the argument itself is flawless, John Searle’s opinion that strong artificial intelligence is impossible is not.

The Chinese room argument is really more of a thought provoking experiment. You are asked to imagine an English speaking man in a room, within this room there is nothing but tools to which he can translate Chinese symbols. The man in the room is passed these symbols through a slit on one side of the room, and using his tools he must translate them. Then, he passes the translations through the slit in the other side of the room, and to the people outside the room it looks like he understands Chinese. Searle’s argument is that just because it looks like the man understands the Chinese symbols, and has the tools to translate the Chinese Symbols, doesn’t mean he actually understands the symbols. Within this argument the man represents a computer. The symbols are given to the computer, the computers programming allows the computer to translate the symbols, and the computer gives an answer. At no point does this imply the computer understands the original information it was given. The computer was simply programmed to be able to function as such(Gams 231).

Using words and substituting the word Computer for Strong Artificial Intelligence the argument would sound something similar to this. Computers can provide Answers to questions. Computers only manipulate symbols. Manipulating symbols is not sufficient for understanding, thus computers do not have understanding. In trying to understand this argument this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Even though John Searle is wrong about Strong Artificial Intelligence being impossible, I agree with the Chinese Room argument. In order to understand why the argument is sound you must first understand what the argument is about. According to The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences, “Strong AI is defined as the view that an appropriately programmed digital computer with the right inputs and outputs, one that satisfies the Turing test, would have a mind(Keil 115).” According to Searle Strong Artificial Intelligence would be able to think, understand, and have other cognitive states(Searle Minds, Brains and Programs).

Going back to our first definition it’s important to our argument that you understand the Turing Test. The Turing Test was designed by Alan Turing in 1950 as a way to figure out if something is true Strong Artificial Intelligence. Present day the Turing Test could be explained like this, if Strong Artificial Intelligence could have a full conversation with a human without that human having any idea it was machine, and then it can indeed be defined as Strong Artificial Intelligence (Begeer 195). By definition Turing tells us that there should be no differences between Strong Artificial Intelligence and a human. When Rene Descartes said, “I think therefore I am” he demonstrated to us that humans are defined by their ability to think. Within Searle’s argument it is clearly pointed out that the man in the room doesn’t think he’s simply manipulating symbols. Without the ability to think you can’t possibly demonstrate the ability to understand. Nowhere in the Chinese Room Argument does the man show us he actually understands the symbols, just that he can change them using his tools like a computer manipulating symbols as it was programmed to do.

The argument is brilliant in that there is no stone cold proof against it. There are detractors and responses but none of them carry large weight. One of the more famous replies is the “Brain Simulator Reply,” within this it is argued that if someone such as a native Chinese Speaker were put in the room the simulation would then look exactly like an actually brain and the program within the Chinese man’s brain would mirror the program of a computer. Searle’s response to this was brilliant, using something known as the waterpipe example he explained himself as seen in the article “Chinese Room Argument” on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article explains it as such, “we have the man operate an elaborate set of water pipes with valves connecting them. Given some Chinese symbols as input, the program now tells the man which valves he has to turn off and on. Each water connection corresponds to synapse in the Chinese brain, and the whole system is rigged so that after . . . turning on all the right faucets, the Chinese answer pops out at the output end of the series of pipes. Yet Searle thinks, obviously the man certainly doesn’t understand Chinese, and neither do the water pipes. The problem with the brain simulator, as Searle diagnoses it, is that it simulates only the formal structure of the sequence of neuron firing: the insufficiency of this formal structure for producing meaning and mental states.”

The only way to properly dispute Searle’s claims is to try and prove the mind isn’t required for being human or to re write the definition of Strong Artificial Intelligence. Searle used such a simple example that he left no open room for interpretation.

The reasons I don’t agree with Searle’s opinion that Strong Artificial Intelligence is impossible are fairly simple. The argument will not stand the test of time. The Teleological argument was also widely debated but once Darwin and DNA came around it was considered a dead argument. Society’s ability to constantly change and improve upon what we have makes Searle’s argument a test against time. The teleological argument was around thousands of years before someone was able to bring evidence against it. Searle’s argument is 30 years old and it already seems outdated. The future can not be predicted but the constant flow of new more amazing technology leads you to believe Strong Artificial Intelligence isn’t completely impossible.

Searle’s argument also seems more like an attack on Functionalism and computationalism than it does proof that strong Artificial Intelligence can’t be possible. Computationalism is the idea that the relationship between the mind and the brain is similar to that of a computer running a program. Functionalism is the idea that external factors have a direct relationship to your cognitive states not just internal ones. It would seem Searle’s very specific Chinese Room argument contradicts both at a deeper level(Bailey 233).

The Chinese Room argument is a very thought provoking experiment. On One hand John Searle’s argument seems impossible to contradict. On the other, Strong Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem that impossible. It seems as if only time will tell who is right.

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