What Does "Understanding" Really Mean: The Chinese Room

John Searle, an influential philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was at that time saying that computers were not, and could not be, intelligent. To prove it, in 1980 he came up with a thought experiment call the Chinese Room. It goes like this:

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 the 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 hum 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 hum 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? Searle's answer is that no understanding did occur; it was just a bunch of mindless page flipping and pencil scratching. And now the bait-and-switch: the Chinese Room is exactly analogous to a digital computer. The person is the CPU, mindlessly executing instructions, the book is the software program feeding instructions to the CPU, and the scratch paper is the memory. Thus, no matter how cleverly a computer is designed to simulate intelligence by producing the same behavior as a human, it has no understanding and it is not intelligent. (Searle made it clear he didn't know what intelligence is; he was only saying that whatever it is, computers don't have it.)

-- Jeffrey Hawkins

from "On Intelligence"

Quoted on Fri Dec 23rd, 2011