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Strong AI and the Chinese Room Argument, Four views

Joris de Ruiter 3AI, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam First paper for: FAAI 2006

Strong AI is the view that the human mind is a computational device and computers are in principle capable of thought. In 1980, Searle published a paper which argued against this position by means of a thought experiment: the chinese room. In the years to come, many comments were made to this paper, of which we will discuss two. Central questions in this paper will be whether strong AI is true, and whether it is possible to create a true 'Artificial Intelligence'. All four views (strong AI, Searle, Harnad and Churchland) differ from one another, and all will be summarized and discussed. In short, this paper discusses some important philosophical underpinnings of AI, by summarizing and discussing the views of three authors and strong AI itself.

that mental states are just computational states. consciousness. That is. 'weak AI' is the view that computers are merely useful in psychology. we start with an explanation of Strong AI. When we say that a computer has intentionality. computationalism and functionalism as the same. since they have written the paper[4] together. (2) Computational states are implementation-independent. Programs executed on a computer are always purely symbolic (consisting only of symbols like letters or digits (0/1)). intentionality. both professors of philosophy. or that it can truly understand. and other areas. who writes: "According to strong AI. an algorithm. and the argument also has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. Because of that. and use them interchangeably. and argued against it by means of the Chinese Room Argument (CRA). there have been many critical replies to it. the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind"[2] By contrast. To begin with.g. along with Searle's chinese room argument and of course strong AI itself. which states more or less the same as strong AI2. manipulation of the zero's and one's). The same holds for understanding. we refer to both of them.Introduction In 1980. Sometimes the singular form is more suitable in a sentence. . intelligence. and can think. sometimes the plural. it understands. (Software is hardwareindependent). rather. a a married couple. In both cases. Searle's argument was (and is) a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 1 When referring to Churchland. the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind. Strong AI states that all there is to having a mind (having mental/cognitive states). we actually refer to 'the churchlands'. In this paper we discuss two such replies (from Harnad and Churchland1). Central questions will be: (1) is strong AI true? (2) is strong AI possible. Searle defined Strong AI. According to Harnad [3]. and how? Note that this paper requires no prior knowledge of the philosophy of AI: all necessary terms will be explained. (Otherwise put: Mental states are just computational states). By program. The term was originally coined by John Searle. we mean a sequence of steps. has cognitive states. and mentality (having a mind). This leads us to computationalism. As a result. computation is pure symbol manipulation (e. we use them interchangeably. 2 For reasons of simplicity. it actually would count as a mind. the following can be said of computationalism: (1) Mental states are just implementations of (the right) computer program(s). What is strong AI? Strong AI is the view that the human mind is a computational device and computers are in principle capable of thought[1]. For reasons of simplicity. Computationalism is the theory that cognition is computation. in part because they can simulate mental abilities. Weak AI makes no claim that computers actually understand or are intelligent. is running a program (the right program of course). Supporters of strong AI believe that an appropriately programmed computer isn't simply a simulation or model of a mind. linguistics. we see strong AI. we usually mean all these words.

without paying for the hamburger or leaving a tip. Thus. Note that this is exactly what AI-researchers are doing: making intelligent programs. partisans of strong AI claim that in this 'question and answer sequence'. and the man stormed out of the restaurant angrily. and indeed any Turing machine simulation of human mental phenomena. computationalism/strong AI states that running a program is enough for mentality. The question is just a matter of writing the right program. or a system of waterpipes and valves. for example. but also on all sorts of crazy implementations like a roll of toilet paper."[2] Searle describes the program as follows[2]: (shortened) "Very briefly. and enough time/spead and storage space. Weizenbaum's ELIZA [8]. "the machine is not only simulating a human ability. Because of the huge size (10 billion neurons) and speed of the brain. the result is the same (understanding. etc). This has some far-reaching implications: . Eliza. So basically. The same arguments (coming after the story) would apply to Winograd's SHRDLU [7]. . Note that "nothing that follows depends upon the details of Schank's programs. It is characteristic of human beings' story-understanding capacity that they can answer questions about the story even though the information that they give was never explicitly stated in the story. he did not. The computer program has to be physically implemented as a dynamical system in order to become the corresponding computational state. but in principle they can. you will presumably answer.A computer can display any systematic pattern of responses to the environment whatsoever. made by Roger Schank in 1977 [6]. SHRDLU). and that mentality is implementation-independent. one can describe Schank's program as follows: the aim of the program is to simulate the human ability to understand stories. It's just a matter of finding the right computer program (given enough time and storage space). a pile of small stones.We now know how the mind works (including consciousness. and that what the machine and its program do explains the human ability to understand the story and answer questions about it. but the physical details of the implementation are irrelevant to the computational state that they implement -. consciousness. are truly intelligent. since they are all able to run a program. and can have all mental states that humans have.If we combine (1) and (2) we get: Mental states are just implementationindependent implementations of computer programs. .' Schank's machines can similarly answer questions about restaurants in this fashion. but also that the machine can literally be said to understand the story and provide the answers to questions. these crazy implementations will not be suitable for reproducing the brain in real-time. Radically different physical systems can all be implementing one and the same computational system. . and explain human intelligence To make matters more concrete. if you are asked 'Did the man eat the hamburger?'. all of these can have mentality. This is not selfcontradictory. namely by just running a program . Now.Whether you run that program on a human or computer3. " According to Searle[2]. let's consider such a program: SAM (Script Applier Mechanism)."[2] 3 Note that a program can not only be run on a human or computer. To computationalism.g. suppose you are given the following story: A man went into a restaurant and ordered a hamburger. etc).except that there has to be some form of physical implementation. SAM.The programs that we make to simulate intelligence (e. 'No. When the hamburger arrived it was burned to a crisp.

This sounds like a great solution for believers of computationalism. hence the Turing Test is the decisive test for a computationalist theory of mental states. a computer which can truly reason. and it tests the machine's capability to perform human-like conversation. not everyone agrees. Harnad en Churchland. etc. or something else -. Because of tenet (2). and how? Can we really build an understanding computer. total functional indistinguishability) between the reverse-engineered candidate and the real thing. so let's take a look at the practical approach. If we cannot distinguish between a human and a machine in human-like conversation. and start actually making the programs? And when we have a good enough program (e. the test concludes that the machine also has mentality. We would have to discuss all objections to the CRA.whether just computation. which passes a test). "this does not imply that passing the Turing Test (TT) is a guarantor of having a mind or that failing it is a guarantor of lacking one. But before going in to that. we say. because it ignores structure and only calls for functional equivalence (see tenet (3) above). speaks fluently natural language. while not actually understanding the conversation.These are exactly the claims that Searle likes to refute with his chinese room argument. computationalism has eschewed structure. This is one . solve problems. According to him. One of the objections phrased is that the machine only simulates mentality. we can already say that there's lots of discussion needed before we would have a final conclusion. According to Harnad[3].cognitive science can only ever be a form of 'reverse engineering' [10] and reverse-engineering has only two kinds of empirical data to go by: structure and function (the latter including all performance capacities). Whatever cognition actually turns out to be -."[3] Now that we know what computationalism/strong AI is. no introspectivism is needed (which suits cognitive scientists). is intelligent and sapient (self-aware). how? Both questions will be addressed after the introduction. About (2). let's explore a bit more about computationalism. About (1). empirically speaking. consciousness. there's a third proposition about computationalism: (3) There is no stronger empirical test for the presence of mental states than Turing-Indistinguishability. And the TT simply calls for functional equivalence (indeed. theoretically and practically.g. and some of the arguments made by Searle. Unfortunately. or something more. a true 'Artificial Intelligence'? The holy grail of AI. The theoretical approach will likely be (again) a long discussion. that leaves only function. where we will discuss the views of computationalism and three writers (Searle. It suffices to say that each of these topics has generated it's own pile of papers and books. we can just start making programs (which suit pragmatists and AI researchers). Also. It's called the Turing test. this is strong AI! Such an approach has indeed been taken. Why don't we just skip the question. we can ask two questions: (1) is strong AI true? Are all claims made by strong AI true? (2) is strong AI possible. we can already say that it can be answered in two ways. the symbol grounding problem. yes. Harnad en Churchland). and instead of long theoretical discussions. It just means that we cannot do any better than the TT. In this paper we only discuss computationalism. is it possible? And if so. and probably also understanding.

So alas. all agree that strong AI is possible. Now if we put these two together. According to computationalism. we have the result that a Universal Turing Machine (UTM) can implement any algorithm whatever" [11]. He begins the primal story as follows: (slightly modified) "We begin with two results in mathematical logic. Searle. we will do this by summarizing and discussing the views of computationalism and three writers (Searle. Harnad en Churchland). but think hybrid or noncomputational systems (like artificial neural networks) will be the solution. Harnad and Churchland. having a mind is just a question of executing the right program. Computationalism of course agrees with itself. it still understands nothing. Searle describes the 'primal story'. but disagree on how to achieve it. after which we will go more into depth into each of them. there's no simple way out for this one. On the second question. the Church-Turing thesis and Turing's theorem. we're condemned to dive into the theoretical discussion. Views on Strong AI We had 2 questions to answer: (1) is strong AI true? (2) is strong AI possible. In his paper 'is the brain a digital computer'[11]. Hopefully. and point to a fault in the CRA. and lays out the chinese room argument to 'proof' computationalism is wrong. a computer will still understand nothing. and how? Below we quickly summarize the viewpoints of computationalism. the result is the same (understanding.of the things Searle intends to show with his chinese room argument: even if a program is indistinguishable from a human (it passes Turing test). As said. Harnad agrees with that proof. and our intuition may think the opposite. The Churchlands disagree with Searle. all disagree with one another on the first question. For our purposes. but points out the CRA is limited. so we just have to write the right program (assuming it exists). Searle argues against this. and therefore. which he describes as "a story about the relation of human intelligence to computation that goes back at least to Turing's classic paper[12]". Searle does not. Computationalism: Computationalism states that mentality is implementation-independent: whether you run a program on a human or computer. To begin with. According to him. by stating that even by executing the right program (a program which passes the Turing test). consciousness. the Church-Turing thesis states that for any algorithm there is some Turing machine that can implement that algorithm (given enough time and storage space). etc). a computer needs to have the same causal structures as a brain. some interesting conclusions will come out. so let's see what idea's lay behind it. Turing's theorem says that there is a Universal Turing Machine which can simulate any Turing Machine. Harnad and Churchland are also against computatationalism. . This is quite a big statement. the Turing test is not a good enough test for understanding.

such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese speaker. Just as we got a computer simulation of the processes for doing long division. but the real thing. the very same algorithm that I use for long division on a digital computer. The conclusion proponents of strong AI would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese. this simulations are not just simulations. it needs to have the same causal structures as the brain. and therefore. Even more. the human computer. and then produces other Chinese symbols as output. and this would result in all far-reaching implications we described before. In other words. For example. so we could get a computer simulation of the process for understanding language. In other words. with results such as SAM. He does this by laying out the chinese room argument. All the questions the human asks are responded to appropriately. that running a program cannot be sufficient for having a mind. consults a large look-up table (as all computers can be described as doing). for example. the computer can implement any algorithm. many years from now. And so AI becomes a search for these programs. Searle published a paper called 'Minds. beginning with a description of the chinese room argument." [11] And so computatationalism concludes that all our brains processes are computational. and the mechanical computer are implementing the same algorithm. that we are not computers. Now. we could find out how the brain works by simulating these very processes on a digital computer. which shows that syntax is not enough for semantics. Now it seems reasonable to suppose there might also be a whole lot of mental processes going on in my brain nonconsciously which are also computational. goes as follows: "Suppose that. brains are Universal Turing Machines as well. According to him. the computer takes Chinese symbols as input. I am doing it consciously. I can implement. categorization. Below we will discuss these matters in more depth. for a computer to really understand natural language. Searle: In 1980. the Chinese room argument. and programs' in which he defined strong AI (computationalism). the mechanical computer nonconsciously. running the program is enough for mentality. SHRDLU and ELIZA. And if so. it convinces a human Chinese speaker that it is a Chinese speaker. brains. According to Wikipedia. just as the person does. and can therefore be simulated on a computer. as described by Turing (l950). . are there good reasons for supposing the brain might be a Universal Turing Machine? "It is clear that at least some human mental abilities are algorithmic.Because the computer is a UTM. visual perception. Now if computationalism is right. and that syntax (symbol manipulation) is not enough for semantics. that Searle comes in to say that those simulations are really just simulations. and tries to prove it's wrong. we have constructed a computer which behaves as if it understands Chinese. And it is at this moment. It is furthermore a consequence of the ChurchTuring thesis and Turing's theorem that anything a human can do algorithmically can be done on a Universal Turing Machine. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it easily passes the Turing test. In such a case. both I. I can consciously do long division by going through the steps of an algorithm for solving long division problems. etc.

namely hybrid or noncomputational systems. that system thereby comes to understand Chinese. or any other biological phenomena. just as he doesn't. The conclusion of this argument is that running a program cannot create understanding. They are mindless manipulators of symbols.and they don't understand what they're 'saying'." [13] We might summarize this argument as a reductio ad absurdum against Strong AI: "Let L be a natural language. he argues. namely brains and machines that have the same causal powers as brains." To keep things simple. he is in a small room in which he receives Chinese symbols. So basically. while Searle is also interested in what's inside the system (brains or symbol . In other words. if pure symbol manipulation cannot achieve strong AI. just as he is . and let us say that a 'program for L' is a program for conversing fluently in L. A computing system is any system. it's still mindlessly manipulating symbols. Searle asks us to suppose that he is sitting inside the computer. nothing else. (1) If Strong AI is true.Now. The wider argument includes the claim that one cannot get semantics (meaning) from syntax (formal symbol manipulation). and it is as likely to be as causally dependent on the specific biochemistry of its origins as lactation. (2) I could run a program for Chinese without thereby coming to understand Chinese. the CRA also refutes the Turing test as a good enough test for understanding. photosynthesis. it has to have the same biological structure as the brain. Searle notes. and about the nature of consciousness. his lack of understanding goes to show. We will come back to this later. understanding."[13] There've been lot's of objections raised against the chinese room argument. one can take this as to mean that for a computer to actually think." Searle concludes to say. that "whatever else intentionality is. A summary of these can be found in the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy [9]. and indeed only very special kinds of machines. and returns the Chinese symbols that are indicated by the table. human or otherwise. For now it suffices to say that the fight is still going on: "The many issues raised by the Chinese Room argument will not be settled until there is a consensus about the nature of meaning. that computers don't understand Chinese either. what can? His view is that "only a machine could think. The second premise is supported by the Chinese Room thought experiment. looks them up on look-up table. Note that (apart from computationalism). There continues to be significant disagreement about what processes create meaning. (3) Therefore Strong AI is false. only biological brains can think. Furthermore. Because according to Searle. it is a biological phenomenon. of course.only biological brains). that he doesn't understand a word of Chinese. The Turing test is a pure behavioural test (it only looks at the natural language behaviour of the system)." [9] So then Searle. that can run a program. and consciousness. because they are in the same situation as he is. and thereby understands nothing. because Harnad and Churchland think there is actually a level between the two extremes (computationalism . its relation to syntax. then there is a program for Chinese such that if any computing system runs that program. even if a program passes it. and what can be proven a priori by thought experiments.

and counters a few comments on the CRA. the Churchlands conclude that "even though Searle’s Chinese room may appear to be 'semantically dark'. Harnad concludes that Searle's contribution (the CRA) has not only been negative (destructing computationalism). If computationalism is true. ANN's might be more suitable. they refer to Artificial Neural Networks (ANN's). Note that we have just answered the first major question (is strong AI true?). but that "his critique has helped open up the vistas that are now called 'embodied cognition' and 'situated robotics'". The Churchlands: According to the Churchlands. we must also look at structure. However. due to performance failures of classical AI and specific characteristics of brains. the reasons that SM-machines may not lead to conscious intelligence. and then write the program by which the Symbol Manipulation machine (SM-machine) will compute it.manipulation). classical AI is strongly dependant on claims made by computationalism/strong AI. Harnad: In his paper 'What's Wrong and Right About Searle's Chinese Room Argument?'[3].performance failures of classical AI . The Turing test only looks at function. they think that "classical AI is unlikely to yield conscious machines.specific characteristics of brains (and thereby of ANN's as well) By performance failures. Harnad states that. and how?). they refer to the fact that SM-machines are not very good at object recognition. we are allowed to only look at function (because the physical implementation doesn't matter). are twofold: . After that (with only one page left). The Churchlands conclude that "the functional architecture of classical SM machines is simply the wrong architecture for the very demanding jobs required". Searle also at structure (to be precise: the internal structure of the brain/computer). which has the goal of "identifying the undoubtedly complex function that governs the human pattern of response to the environment. Also."[4]. agrees with it (thereby refuting computationalism). Note that by this description. we refer to a movement at the beginning of the AI-research program. By systems which mimic the brain. computers were slower. However. but because Searle 'proved' computationalism is false. on the strength of this appearance. he is in no position to insist. which of course created their own set of problems. but that "systems that mimic the brain might". Harnad summarizes the chinese room argument. and that "there are still plenty of degrees of freedom in both hybrid and noncomputational approaches". thanks to Searle. When compared to brains. the CRA is false4. and required vast knowledge bases. he is now exploring neural nets. By classical AI. while ANN's might. he goes on to say that the CRA is limited to only refuting pure computationalism. As said. and are now tumbling into the second (is strong AI possible. it certainly does not show that it cannot be computational at all". that rule-governed symbol manipulation can never constitute semantic phenomena" . 4 The arguments for this are a bit too long too state here. and so it's not proven that mentality cannot be achieved by pure symbol manipulation. For these 'very demanding jobs'. He states that "for although the CRA shows that cognition cannot be all just computational.

The Churchlands argue the chinese room argument is false. the most important being: . but that systems that mimic the brain might". Lot's of things can be said about their differences. but many millions of swiftly iterated recursive computations. we can make a distinction between brains and computers. "Parallel processing is not ideal for all types of computation." Conclusion We've seen statements of strong AI/computationalism. the brain performs very badly. due to performance failures of classical AI and specific characteristics of brains. but is certainly not it's basic mode of operation. to be capable of intelligence. but points out the CRA is limited to refuting only pure computationalism. and so it's not proven that mentality cannot be achieved by pure symbol manipulation. they think that "classical AI is unlikely to yield conscious machines. and how?'. parallelism: computers are roughly a million times faster than brains (both in signal propagation as in clock frequency). and three views commenting on that.In general. we can answer the question: 'is strong AI possible. distinguishing food from nonfood. These are the computations that typically confront living creatures: recognizing a predator’s outline in a noisy environment. vital. . Note that by defining neural networks (and thereby ANN's) this way.speed vs. To the Churchlands. Harnad agrees with that. they result in the fact that brains and computers are useful for radically different types of computational problems. but brains have roughly 10^11 neurons (which can be seen as simple CPU's) . the answer is that "pure SM-machines are unlikely to yield conscious intelligence. All tried to answer 2 questions: (1) is strong AI true? (2) is strong AI possible. To him. Above. which leaves "still plenty of degrees of freedom in both hybrid and noncomputational approaches". and states that running a program is enough for creating a strong Artifical Intelligence. However. This class of computations is very large and important. so classical machines will always be useful. Searle argued against this (by stating the CRA). however. not against vector transformers. recalling instantly how to avoid its gaze. They conclude to say that "only research can decide how closely an artificial system must mimic the biological one. and concluded that computationalism is false. A computer does pure symbol manipulation (zero's and one's).symbol manipulation vs. we made some distinctions between brains and computers. But let us continue. but that systems that mimic the brain might". According to the Churchlands. an equally large class of computations for which the brain’s architecture is the superior technology. While these are interesting in itself. strong AI can only be achieved by a computer having the same causal relations as the brain. and so on"[4] With this knowledge in mind. On tasks that require only a small input vector. after which they are outputted. while neural networks can be seen as vectorstransformers: input vectors are transformed by neurons and weighted links. indeed. There is. and how? Computationalism of course agrees that strong AI is true. flee its approach or fend off its attack. This is because Searle's argument is directed against rule-governed SM-machines. symbol manipulation appears to be just one of many cognitive skills that a network may or may not learn to display. whereas classical SM machines excel. vector manipulation. this shields ANN's from Searle's chinese room argument.

M. N. Communication of the Association for Computing Machinery 9:36 45. will hopefully shed some light one these issues.J. Artificial Life: An Overview.searle2. Schank & K. "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?" Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 64: 21-37 http://web. http://www. (1990) Could a Machine Think? Scientific American 262. S. (1973) A procedural model of language understanding. H.comlab. C.ox. J. Bishop & J. http://cogprints. [JRS] [9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . (1980) Minds. there's also disagreement over whether the Turing test is a good enough test for mentality.ilstu. John. consciousness. are: [2].1. More research.293-301 (reprinted in: C. [JRS] [8] Weizenbaum. Harnad and Churchland leave the question open for empirical research to decide. T. and no consensus. (1977) Scripts. (1965) Eliza . References Note: the main papers of this paper (the one's which are summarized and discussed).). San Francisco: W.pdf [5] [10] 'Levels of Functional Equivalence in Reverse Bioengineering: The Darwinian Turing Test for Artificial Life'.pdf [6] Schank.stanford.ucd. loads of papers. R. JRS] [7] Winograd. .ac. especially in the domains of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine. MA: MIT Press. (Cambridge.G. In: Computer models of thought and plans. there are loads of problems. R. (2001) What's Wrong and Right About Searle's Chinese Room Argument? In: M. the Turing test.) Essays on Searle's Chinese Room Argument. the relation between syntax and semantics. and [4] [1] Definitions of some key terms http://www. R.psychology. Artificial Life. and understanding Hillsdale. the chinese room argument. Harnad and the Churchlands are somewhere in between (for reasons unstated in this paper). This paper was about strong AI/computationalism. For each of these [4] Churchland. P. 1995). Colby.htm [2] Searle. This paper has only given an overview on some of these. [3]. pp. John. and programs. because there's disagreement over what is needed for mentality. R. P.html [3] Harnad. Searle clearly states no.While computationalism and Searle both have clear statements on what is needed and sufficient for achieving a strong AI. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-457 http://www. & Churchland.1: 32-37.Langton ( & Abelson.: Lawrence Erlbaum Press. Preston (eds. etc. Finally. Oxford University Press. ed. P. Computationalism clearly states yes. 1990.%20definitions%20of%20some%20key%20terms.Chinese Room Argument http://plato. understanding. [RCS.bbsonline. Freeman.S. brains. goals.

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