AI prediction case study 3: Searle's Chinese room

by Stuart_Armstrong 6 min read13th Mar 201336 comments

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Myself, Kaj Sotala and Seán ÓhÉigeartaigh recently submitted a paper entitled "The errors, insights and lessons of famous AI predictions and what they mean for the future" to the conference proceedings of the AGI12/AGI Impacts Winter Intelligence conference. Sharp deadlines prevented us from following the ideal procedure of first presenting it here and getting feedback; instead, we'll present it here after the fact.

The prediction classification shemas can be found in the first case study.

Locked up in Searle's Chinese room

  • Classification: issues and metastatements and a scenario, using philosophical arguments and expert judgement.

Searle's Chinese room thought experiment is a famous critique of some of the assumptions of 'strong AI' (which Searle defines as the belief that 'the appropriately programmed computer literally has cognitive states). There has been a lot of further discussion on the subject (see for instance (Sea90,Har01)), but, as in previous case studies, this section will focus exclusively on his original 1980 publication (Sea80).

In the key thought experiment, Searle imagined that AI research had progressed to the point where a computer program had been created that could demonstrate the same input-output performance as a human - for instance, it could pass the Turing test. Nevertheless, Searle argued, this program would not demonstrate true understanding. He supposed that the program's inputs and outputs were in Chinese, a language Searle couldn't understand. Instead of a standard computer program, the required instructions were given on paper, and Searle himself was locked in a room somewhere, slavishly following the instructions and therefore causing the same input-output behaviour as the AI. Since it was functionally equivalent to the AI, the setup should, from the 'strong AI' perspective, demonstrate understanding if and only if the AI did. Searle then argued that there would be no understanding at all: he himself couldn't understand Chinese, and there was no-one else in the room to understand it either.

The whole argument depends on strong appeals to intuition (indeed D. Dennet went as far as accusing it of being an 'intuition pump' (Den91)). The required assumptions are:

  • The Chinese room setup analogy preserves the relevant properties of the AI's program.
  • Intuitive reasoning about the Chinese room is thus relevant reasoning about algorithms.
  • The intuition that the Chinese room follows a purely syntactic (symbol-manipulating) process rather than a semantic (understanding) one is a correct philosophical judgement.
  • The intuitive belief that humans follow semantic processes is however correct.

Thus the Chinese room argument is unconvincing to those that don't share Searle's intuitions. It cannot be accepted solely on Searle's philosophical expertise, as other philosophers disagree (Den91,Rey86). On top of this, Searle is very clear that his thought experiment doesn't put any limits on the performance of AIs (he argues that even a computer with all the behaviours of a human being would not demonstrate true understanding). Hence the Chinese room seems to be useless for AI predictions. Can useful prediction nevertheless be extracted from it?

These need not come directly from the main thought experiment, but from some of the intuitions and arguments surrounding it. Searle's paper presents several interesting arguments, and it is interesting to note that many of them are disconnected from his main point. For instance, errors made in 1980 AI research should be irrelevant to the Chinese Room - a pure thought experiment. Yet Searle argues about these errors, and there is at least an intuitive if not a logical connection to his main point. There are actually several different arguments in Searle's paper, not clearly divided from each other, and likely to be rejected or embraced depending on the degree of overlap with Searle's intuitions. This may explain why many philosophers have found Searle's paper so complex to grapple with.

One feature Searle highlights is the syntactic-semantic gap. If he is correct, and such a gap exists, this demonstrates the possibility of further philosophical progress in the area (in the opinion of one of the authors, the gap can be explained by positing that humans are purely syntactic beings, but that have been selected by evolution such that human mental symbols correspond with real world objects and concepts - one possible explanation among very many). For instance, Searle directly criticises McCarthy's contention that ''Machines as simple as thermostats can have beliefs'' (McC79). If one accepted Searle's intuition there, one could then ask whether more complicated machines could have beliefs, and what attributes they would need. These should be attributes that it would be useful to have in an AI. Thus progress in 'understanding understanding' would likely make it easier to go about designing AI - but only if Searle's intuition is correct that AI designers do not currently grasp these concepts.

That can be expanded into a more general point. In Searle's time, the dominant AI paradigm was GOFAI (Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (Hau85)), which focused on logic and symbolic manipulation. Many of these symbols had suggestive labels: SHRDLU, for instance, had a vocabulary that included 'red', 'block', 'big' and 'pick up' (Win71). Searle's argument can be read, in part, as a claim that these suggestive labels did not in themselves impart true understanding of the concepts involved - SHRDLU could parse ''pick up a big red block'' and respond with an action that seems appropriate, but could not understand those concepts in a more general environment. The decline of GOFAI since the 1980's cannot be claimed as vindication of Searle's approach, but it at least backs up his intuition that these early AI designers were missing something.

Another falsifiable prediction can be extracted, not from the article but from the intuitions supporting it. If formal machines do not demonstrate understanding, but brains (or brain-like structures) do, this would lead to certain scenario predictions. Suppose two teams were competing to complete an AI that will pass the Turing test. One team was using standard programming techniques on computer, the other were building it out of brain (or brain-like) components. Apart from this, there is no reason to prefer one team over the other.

According to Searle's intuition, any AI made by the first project will not demonstrate true understanding, while those of the second project may. Adding the reasonable assumption that it is harder to simulate understanding if one doesn't actually possess it, one is lead to the prediction that the second team is more likely to succeed.

Thus there are three predictions that can be extracted from the Chinese room paper:

  1. Philosophical progress in understanding the syntactic-semantic gap may help towards designing better AIs.
  2. GOFAI's proponents incorrectly misattribute understanding and other high level concepts to simple symbolic manipulation machines, and will not succeed with their approach.
  3. An AI project that uses brain-like components is more likely to succeed (everything else being equal) than one based on copying the functional properties of the mind.

Therefore one can often extract predictions from even the most explicitly anti-predictive philosophy of AI paper.

 

References:

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