The Chinese Chinese Room

11 Jun 2015

I’ve been listening to a series of lectures called Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. A lot of these concepts I’ve read about before, but it’s nice to have everything together in a coherent set. One of the topics covered refers to the Chinese Room, an anti-AI argument devised by philosopher John Searle:

Modus scribendi

> Searle writes in his first description of the argument: “Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.

> The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle’s Chinese room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. The argument is directed against the philosophical positions of functionalism and computationalism, which hold that the mind may be viewed as an information processing system operating on formal symbols.

So my first thought was: what do the Chinese call the Chinese room? The laowai room? Turns out the answer is a little more boring than that: in Chinese it’s called the 中文房间. (You might have been tempted to translate it as the 中国房间, but that doesn’t work as well, since the whole part of the argument is that there are these inscrutable symbols that can be manipulated. It’s Chinese characters that are key, not Chinese culture or nationality.)

The room is “Chinese,” of course, because of the inscrutable nature of Chinese characters. It boosts the argument if it feels like there’s no chance that the person in the room will actually learn them in the process of their Chinese room work.

I have to take umbrage at that: you can read Chinese. (If you want to.) I admit, though, that the Chinese room is not the best way to go about it.

There’s one other thought experiment mentioned which touches on China: the China brain. That one doesn’t seem to have a well-known translation (and no page on Wikipedia), but it seems at least some translators have gone with the straightforward 中国脑子. (This one refers to the people of China, and not the Chinese language itself.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. great web blog name

  2. Petraeus Prime Says: June 12, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    It will be possible with quantum computing.

  3. 周欢驰 Says: June 13, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    中文房间算是比较靠谱的翻译了,在IT领域,看中文完全跟原意没关系的名词相当多,比如有本非常有名的书«code complete»,中文翻译成«代码大全»

  4. I always disliked Searle’s argument Chinese Room argument as somewhat half-baked, avoiding defining consciousness and hoping notices. I did wonder what it was called in Chinese, so that was good to know!

    There is a function used in computational linguistics called the “Chinese restaurant process” (中餐馆过程 in Chinese), which is used to generate a set of discrete values. The idea is that the first customer in a hypothetical restaurant will sit at an empty table, and each new customer can choose to sit at an occupied table, or an empty one with a certain probability. A coincidence of this process is that for certain parameters it can generate the Zipf function, which describes the word frequencies in a language.

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