Chinese room

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The Chinese room is a thought experiment by John Searle which first appeared in his paper "Minds, Brains, and Programs", published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1980.[1] It addresses the question: if a machine can convincingly simulate an intelligent conversation, does it necessarily understand? In the experiment, Searle imagines himself in a room acting as a computer by manually executing a program that convincingly simulates the behavior of a native Chinese speaker. People outside the room slide Chinese characters under the door and Searle, to whom "Chinese writing is just so many meaningless squiggles",[2] is able to create sensible replies, in Chinese, by following the instructions of the program; that is, by moving papers around. The question arises whether Searle can be said to understand Chinese in the same way that, as Searle says, "according to strong AI, . . . the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind, in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have other cognitive states."[2]

The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle's Chinese Room Argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a "mind" or "understanding", regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave.[1] He concludes that "programs are neither constitutive of nor sufficient for minds."[3] "I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing."[2] The Chinese room is an argument against certain claims of leading thinkers in the field of artificial intelligence,[4] and is not concerned with the level of intelligence that an AI program can display.[5]

Searle's argument is directed against functionalism and computationalism (philosophical positions inspired by AI), rather than the goals of applied AI research itself.[6] The argument leaves aside the question of creating an artificial mind by methods other than symbol manipulation.[7] Controversial, and the subject of an entire literature of counterargument,[8] it became Behavioral and Brain Sciences's "most influential target article",[9] generating an enormous number of commentaries and responses in the ensuing decades.


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