(or, _Beyond The Chinese Room_)
Paul Ford has recently posted an introduction to The Chinese Room Thought Experiment, John Searle‘s infamous refutation of the possibility of truly artificial intelligence.
(As a matter of interest, here is an essay I wrote almost two years ago on the Chinese Room experiment and its subsequent detractors; it’s admittedly badly-argued, and the prose could do with some work, but it’s something.)
Searle’s experiment was my introduction to the intriguing world of artificial intelligence, and even prompted me to consider postgraduate study in the field of cognitive science. That is, before I realised how much I hate maths. Still, it would have been nice to play with the robots (I’m convinced that the ‘classified’ status of UCD’s cognitive science department is just to cover up their real mission: building a machine to win at Robot Wars).
Yet the Chinese Room isn’t just about disproving behaviouristic arguments in support of A.I. (see: the Turing Test). The thought experiment itself is based upon the distinction between semiotics and semantics, insofar as semantic meaning is attributed to semiotic symbols _after the fact_ — there is NO _a priori_ connection between a sign or a symbol (a word, for the most obvious example) and whatever meaning it conveys (i.e. the definition of the word, in a given context).
To put it in the simplest terms, words mean _what we say they mean_.
It’s funny how the concept of artificial intelligence — something we generally associate with a future of robots, talking computers and other staples of science fiction — connects so seamlessly with present-day linguistics, the philosophy of language, and in turn mankind’s apparently innate capacity for intercommunication. It’s also funny how Paul Ford’s quoting of Searle connects so coincidentally with a string of weblog entries by Matt Webb on the subject of words and their meaning (This extract from an interview with Samuel Delany, plus a quote from Christopher Ricks’ The State of the Language).
From this point on one could reference any relevant theorist from Chomsky to Derrida, but I’m not about to start that now. Rather, it’s the potential for such connections to be made that’s of primary interest to me at this time. It’s interesting how it almost mirrors the hidden patterns of our own cognitive processes; the ‘stream of consciousness’ that James Joyce attempted to textualise with Ulysses.
Speaking of great books, Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance also deals with the making of connections; how the strings of thoughts, of events, of relationships sometimes weave together so tightly that you’d never think of them as anything but strands of the same rope. In Murakami’s novel, it’s the Sheep Man who serves as a connecting node of sorts (or knot, if you’d rather stick with the rope analogy) for his unnamed protagonist’s experiences. But isn’t the Sheep Man really a projection of the protagonist’s own consciousness? Like the Chinese Room might be seen as Searle’s simplified abstraction of mechanical cognition? (I guess you would have to had read the book to answer that, but it’s certainly some food for thought.)
Discussing this topic brings to mind something I’ve been meaning to mention here for a while: namely, the startlingly coindicental thematic/tonal connections between the Dictionary.com Word of the Day links at the foot of each individual entry in this weblog, and the very entries with which they are associated.
Here are a handful of recent instances:
- On Flash Mobs (excoriate)
- Africa, Here I Come (alacrity)
- Late Night TV Blues (choleric)
- Natural’s Not In It (fatuous)
The connections may be tenuous at best, but surely one cannot doubt that Dictionary.com’s chosen words for these given days have been eerily appropriate…