The Chinese Room Thought Experiment

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Here's an interesting thought experiment proposed by John Searle in 1978

Let us suppose you have a room with a slot in one wall, and inside is an English-speaking person sitting at a desk. He has a big book of instructions and all the pencils and scratch paper he could ever need. Flipping through the book, he sees that the instructions, written in English, dictate ways to manipulate, sort, and compare Chinese characters. Mind you, the directions say nothing about the meanings of the Chinese characters; they only deal with how characters are to be copied, erased, reordered, transcribed, and so forth.

Someone outside the room slips a piece of paper through the slot. On it is written a story and questions about the story, all in Chinese. The man inside doesn't speak or read a word of Chinese, but he picks up the paper and goes to work with the rulebook. He toils and toils, rotely following the instructions in the book. At times the instructions tell him to write characters on scrap paper, and at other times to move and erase characters. Applying rule after rule, writing and erasing characters, the man works until the book's instructions tell him he is done. When he is finished at last he has written a new page of characters, which unbeknownst to him are the answers to the questions. The book tells him to pass his paper back through the slot. He does it, and wonders what this whole tedious exercise has been about.

Outside, a Chinese speaker reads the page. The answers are all correct, she notes---even insightful. If she is asked whether those answers came from an intelligent mind that had understood the story, she will definitely say yes. But can she be right? Who understood the story? It wasn't the fellow inside, certainly; he is ignorant of Chinese and has no idea what the story was about. It wasn't the book, which is just, well, a book, sitting inertly on the writing desk amid piles of paper.

So where did the understanding occur?
I don't get it. If the answers make sense, and are even "insightful" then obviously the person wrote the big book of instructions understood.

If I read the setup correctly, not only understood the story in Chinese writing but also the thing (person(s)?) that generated the questions about it and those who would evaluate the answers.

Either that or the instructions were brilliantly designed after a functional theory of everything, or at least how to usefully/properly arrange Chinese letters for any purpose whatsoever.

Thadman, people don't usually devise thought experiments just for fun. What was the original point of this question?
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diyAudio Member
Joined 2007
I believe it was a question on the nature of intelligence and whether machines
( read computers ) would ; when sufficiently powerful; be considered to be intelligent.
I think there were also questions raised at the time about computer sentience once sapience was raised to a sufficiently high level
So where did the understanding occur?

No understanding occurred, there was an algorithm 'run'. Its important to point out the impracticability of this thought experiment though. According to some estimates there are over 20,000 different Chinese ideograms - so a sequence of merely 20 characters has more permutations than there are atoms in the observable universe. The chances of finding the answers 'correct, even insightful' are infinitesmally small - far lower than the chances of finding no Chinglish in Google's translation of an online page of Chinese.
abraxalito said:
No understanding occurred, there was an algorithm 'run'.
Yes. There is a world of difference between accurate processing of symbols (which computers do all the time), and understanding a text and answering questions based on understanding of that text. Having said that, some simple 'comprehension' questions may be answerable by mere symbol processing. Deeper questions require understanding, so at present the best that could be done is for the automaton (whether electronic or biological) to fake understanding.
what we have here is the Turing test where the man in the Chinese room is a stand-in for a microprocessor: Turing test - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

And, wasn't it Sir Roger Penrose who claims to have shown there is great doubt that it will ever be possible for a Turing machine (digital computer) to perfectly simulate a human mind. There are mathematical problems that can be proven to be impossible to solve using an algorithm and have only been solved through human insight - this is an underlying tenant of his claim. Read the book "The Emperors New Mind".

And another implication from his work is that the physical mechanisms that enable the human mind are therefore not algorithmic and our brains are not equivalent to a Turing machine - the only alternative is that there are quantum level processes at play which do not operate on an algorithmic basis and so operate outside the bounds of the Chinese room where instructions in a book are to be followed.
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