Chinese Room Step 4: Wanting to Pursue Your Goal

April 1, 2015

What good is it to have causal powers in the real world if you don’t want to do anything? Yes, that’s the missing element in John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. Even though the Chinese Room can produce grammatically perfect Chinese responses that make sense, it still isn’t alive or intelligent unless it wants something, unless it is pursuing some goal.

Praying mantis on a mirrored handrail - Sept. 26, 2014

Praying mantis on a mirrored handrail – Sept. 26, 2014 (Enlarge)

Remember the IBM supercomputer Watson that won on Jeopardy back in 2011? Searle famously wrote that Watson didn’t know it won, and that’s undeniably true. Watson did not know or even care. And Watson is a pretty good real-world example of a Chinese Room. So there you go – it looks like Searle won his point.

But you need to remember that Jeopardy questions are just factual questions about the world. Watson found its answers by scouring the Internet and reporting the data it collected. In other words, winning at Jeopardy requires nothing more than shuffling symbols. It’s just pure syntax with no meaning to it.

On the other hand, what if you asked Watson a different kind of question: “Do you want water or juice?” The machine would have no idea how to answer. Searle’s Chinese Room also could not answer this question – unless it had some extra feature that gave it a goal.

A goal-strategy chip

Let’s suppose the Chinese Room has a second kind of instruction book. The first instruction book just tells about Chinese characters, grammar and usage, but this second instruction book will tell about goals and strategies. The second instruction book is an electronic IC chip just like the first, but this second chip has its myriad circuits and logic gates organized in a way we can summarize as “Don’t turn me off!” That’s the top goal.

Thanks to this extra goal-strategy chip, the Chinese Room now has a purpose in life. Every time it gives out an answer in Chinese, it is not only trying to form good Chinese sentences, but it is also trying to stay alive. In fact, its Chinese knowledge is a powerful tool that it now uses to achieve its goal of staying alive. It can ask Chinese people to help it and not hurt it.

Really knowing Chinese means using Chinese for a purpose in your life. This is what meaning or “semantics” is, in the context of the Chinese Room. If the machine has a goal-strategy chip in addition to its data-calculating chip, then the Chinese Room will really know Chinese.