Monday, November 19, 2007

Consciousness and The Chinese Box

"Searle's Chinese Box" is a "thought experiment" designed to demonstrate how 'computers' (or computer programs) could never actually be anything more than 'fake' intelligences.

In other words, although you might be able (say in a thousand years time) to program a supercomputer to converse in spoken chinese with you- and carry on a perfectly good conversation about the weather etc etc- it would, nevertheless, not really "understand" chinese like a person would. It would just be manipulating symbols backwards and forwards.

In the Chinese Box (or Room), Searle (who cannot read or write or understand chinese) imprisons himself in a closed room with only 2 mail slots open to to the outside- input, and output. Through the input slot, chinese people write their questions in chinese characters on bits of paper.

Searle has in his posession a huge instruction book (maybe trillions of pages long) that tells him how to manipulate the symbols- based on the input scrawls that he has received. After processing for however long it takes (lets say billions of years), he finally scribbles things down on another bit of paper, and pushes it out thorough the "output" slot. Viola!- the chinese room understands chinese. Searle is the hardware, and the book is the software.

Searles argument is that nothing really understands anything. Certainly Searle himself does not understand Chinese - he's just 'pushing symbols around' after all. The big instruction book just sits there- surely it doesn't 'understand' much- and there isn't much else left in the room.

In the annals of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Searle's position has been humorously described as "Zen Holism"- the idea that human consciousness is something a computer program could never get.

There's a great article here about opposing arguments of "Zen Holism" vs "High Church Computationalism" (!).

I'm a High Church Computationalist- i agree Searle's 'chinese box' is conscious (or at least understands Chinese) when considered in it's entirety- despite Searle himself just pushing bits of paper around inside.

In this sense, he acts as if he were an unconscious group of neurons - just doing it's duty and not itself being aware of the big Chinese picture. I also like the idea of this form of consciousness as being 'slowed down' by a factor of billions- the change in time scale makes things look strange and "unconscious".

What would an overclocked alien consciousness running a million times faster than ours look like? God. Come to think of it- the Aliens probably wouldn't post themselves into interstellar space but their own artificial intelligences. The "life" SETI will pick up is likely to be synthetic i think.

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