A retro ‘Chinese room’ moment

ARPA_Chinese_characters.jpgThis video is a 1972 documentary about the beginnings of ARPANET, the forerunner to the modern internet, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense

In one scene, a woman is seen typing Chinese symbols into a computer, echoing a beautifully whimsical scene from John Searle‘s famous ‘Chinese room‘ thought experiment.

Searle’s experiment addresses the question of whether information processing would be sufficient to account for consciousness, and includes people in a room, typing Chinese symbols into a computer.

Link to ‘Computer Networks’ video (via BoingBoing).

2 thoughts on “A retro ‘Chinese room’ moment”

  1. Actually, Searle’s hypothetical scenario (it’s not an “experiment” in any sense of the word) explicitly does *not* involve a computer. The room+person+books are meant to represent a purely mechanical process, such as a computer. The main thrust of Searle’s argument is that nothing in the room understands Chinese, and that it’s spurious to conclude that the room on the whole understands Chinese. (Putting a computer in the room makes this point much much less clear.)
    Of course, I continue to be astonished that anyone takes Searle’s contentions seriously. The room is supposed to contain books with answers to every possible question in Chinese. Well, then the books apparently understand Chinese, don’t they? The premise “but books don’t understand anything” is violated by the fact that real books are finite, while Searle’s “books” seem to be infitely rich information sources, more like a query-response interface than a book.

  2. Hi Rob,
    Thanks for the clarification. I think I always imagine people typing things into computers because of the problem’s frequent use in musings over AI.
    One of my favourite responses to Searle’s thought experiment was from philosopher Stephen Stich. He turned the whole problem on its head and said that since humans can do exactly what the ‘Chinese room’ can do, this suggests that we probably are conscious information processing entities!

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