Book Review Bingo


“Happiness,” the French novelist Henry de Montherlant observed, “writes in white ink on a white page.” No one wants to read about contented people leading untroubled lives. Characters in novels must want something if they are to hold our interest, and they mustn’t get it without a fight. Contentment, in fiction, is almost always boring. But does this law extend beyond fiction itself? Does it encompass not just the fates of characters but those of books themselves? Is it possible, in other words, for a critic to say nice things in ways that don’t make you want to gnaw through your own wrists?

Paraic O’Donnell via Irish Times

Searle’s Chinese Room

Chinese room thought experiment

“Searle’s thought experiment begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker. To all of the questions that the person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that they are talking to another Chinese-speaking human being.

The question Searle wants to answer is this: does the machine literally “understand” Chinese? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese? Searle calls the first position “strong AI” and the latter “weak AI”.

Searle then supposes that he is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. Searle could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program’s instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. If the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it follows, says Searle, that he would do so as well, simply by running the program manually.

Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between the roles of the computer and himself in the experiment. Each simply follows a program, step-by-step, producing a behavior which is then interpreted as demonstrating intelligent conversation. However, Searle would not be able to understand the conversation. (“I don’t speak a word of Chinese,” he points out.) Therefore, he argues, it follows that the computer would not be able to understand the conversation either.

Searle argues that, without “understanding” (or “intentionality“), we cannot describe what the machine is doing as “thinking” and, since it does not think, it does not have a “mind” in anything like the normal sense of the word. Therefore, he concludes that “strong AI” is false.