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The Chinese Room Experiment: Computers with a Mind?

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The Chinese Room Thought Experiment is a hypothetical situation posed by the American philosopher John Searle, to demonstrate that the ability to manipulate An orderly set of symbols does not necessarily imply that there is a linguistic understanding or understanding of those symbols. symbols. In other words, the ability to understand does not arise from the syntax, with which the paradigm is questioned. computational studies that cognitive science has developed to understand the functioning of the mind human.

In this article we will see what exactly this thought experiment consists of and what kind of philosophical debates it has generated.

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The Turing machine and the computational paradigm

The development of artificial intelligence is one of the great attempts of the 20th century to understand and even replicate the human mind through the use of computer programs. In this context, one of the most popular models has been the Turing machine.

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Alan Turing (1912-1954) wanted to show that a programmed machine can hold conversations like a human being. For this, he proposed a hypothetical situation based on imitation: if we program a machine to imitate the linguistic ability of the speakers, then we put it before a set of judges, and it makes 30% of these judges think they are talking to a real person, this would be enough evidence to show that a machine can be programmed in such a way that it replicates the mental states of beings humans; and vice versa, this too would be an explanatory model of how human mental states work.

From the computational paradigm, a part of the cognitive current suggests that the most efficient way to acquire knowledge about the world is through the increasingly refined reproduction of information processing rules, so that, regardless of the subjectivity or the history of each person, we could function and respond in society. Thus, the mind would be an exact copy of reality, it is the place of knowledge par excellence and the tool to represent the outside world.

After the Turing machine even some computer systems were programmed that tried to pass the test. One of the first was ELIZA, designed by Joseph Weizenbaum, which responded to users through a model previously registered in a database, which made some interlocutors believe that they were speaking with a person.

Among the most recent inventions that are similar to the Turing machine we find, for example, CAPTCHAs to detect Spam, or SIRI of the iOS operating system. But just as there have been those who try to prove that Turing was right, there have also been those who question him.

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The Chinese Room: Does the Mind Work Like a Computer?

From the experiments that sought to pass the Turing test, John Searle distinguishes between Intelligence Artificial Weak (the one that simulates the understanding, but without intentional states, that is, it describes the mind but not equals it); and Strong Artificial Intelligence (when the machine has mental states like those of human beings, for example, if it can understand the stories as a person does).

For Searle it is impossible to create Strong Artificial Intelligence, which he wanted to verify through a thought experiment known as the Chinese room or the Chinese piece. This experiment consists of posing a hypothetical situation that is the following: a native English speaker, who He does not know Chinese, he is locked in a room and must answer questions about a story that has been told to him in Chinese.

How do you answer them? Through a book of rules written in English for syntactically ordering Chinese symbols without explaining their meaning, only explaining how they should be used. Through this exercise, the questions are answered appropriately by the person in the room, even though this person has not understood their content.

Now suppose there is an external observer, what does he see? That the person in the room behaves exactly like a person who does understand Chinese.

For Searle, this shows that a computer program can imitate a human mind, but this does not mean that the computer program is the same as a human mind, because it has no semantic capacity or intentionality.

Impact on understanding the human mind

Taken to the realm of humans, this means that the process through which we develop the ability to understand a language goes beyond having a set of symbols; other elements are necessary that computer programs cannot have.

Not only that but, from this experiment studies on how meaning is constructed have been expanded, and where is that meaning. The proposals are very diverse, ranging from cognitivist perspectives that say that it is in the head of each person, derived from a set of mental states or that are innately given, up to more constructionist perspectives that ask how systems of rules and practices that are historical and that give a social meaning (that a term has a meaning not because it is in people's heads, but because it enters into a set of practical rules of the language).

Criticisms of the Chinese room thought experiment

Some researchers who disagree with Searle think the experiment is invalid because even if the person in the room does not understand Chinese, it may be that, in conjunction with the elements that surround him (the same room, the real estate, the rules manual), if there is an understanding of Chinese.

Before this, Searle responds with a new hypothetical situation: even if we disappear the elements that surround the person who is inside the room, and We ask that you memorize the rules manuals for manipulating Chinese symbols, this person would not be understanding Chinese, which, neither does a processor computational.

The response to this same criticism has been that the Chinese room is a technically impossible experiment. In turn, the answer to this has been that the technically impossible does not mean that it is logically impossible.

Another of the most popular criticisms has been that made by Dennett and Hofstadter, who apply not only to Searle's experiment but also to the set of thought experiments that have been developed in the last centuries, since the reliability is doubtful because they do not have a rigorous empirical reality, but rather speculative and close to common sense, with which, they are above all a “bomb of intuition”.

Bibliographic references:

  • González, R. (2012). The Chinese Piece: a mental experiment with a Cartesian bias?. Chilean Journal of Neuropsychology, 7 (1): 1-6.
  • Sandoval, J. (2004). Representation, discursiveness and situated action. Critical introduction to the social psychology of knowledge. University of Valparaíso: Chile.
  • González, R. (S / A). "Pumps of intuitions", mind, materialism and dualism: Verification, refutation or epoché?. Repository of the University of Chile. [Online]. Accessed April 20, 2018. Available in sequence = 1.

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