An antecedent of Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument against A.I.

[UPDATE 6/6/14: see end of post]

I should really say another antecedent, given that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies three other versions of this argument. I take the following from Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae:

Physicist and science fiction writer Anatoly Dneprov has described an experiment in his novella, whose aim was to debunk a thesis about “infusing with spirituality” a language-to-language translation machine by replacing the machine’s elements such as transistors and other switches with people who have been spatially distributed in a particular way. Performing the simple functions of signal transfer, this “machine” made of people translated a sentence from Portuguese into Russian, while its designer asked all the people who constituted the “elements” of that machine what this sentence meant. No one knew it, of course, because the language-to-language translation was carried out by the system as a dynamic whole. The designer (in the novella) concluded that “the machine was not intelligent”… [p. 324]

Lem’s book was published first in Polish in 1964, and Anatoly Dneprov died in 1975, so this comfortably predate’s John Searle’s 1980 version of the argument. I haven’t been able to identify what novella Lem is referring to here, as his notes and bibliography have no mention of Dneprov’s work. It would be great if anybody out there did know, and I could make a note of it here.


Update 6/6/14: Internet success! As can be seen from the comments below, the Philosophy Department of Moscow State University’s Center for Consciousness Studies has posted a translation of this story. Go! Read! Enjoy. As an aside, I also like how this story is well within the bounds of the then orthodoxy of dialectical materialism.

Disruptive innovation versus resilience in higher education

In the research I am currently conducting, there is a need to borrow from other literatures in order to come to understand the concept of innovation as it is used in various forms. Innovation is not a new concept for higher education research, as it has a place alongside research itself within the entire tertiary landscape. Much of the literature of innovation focuses on either impressionistic biographical sketches and case studies (e.g. “the N habits of highly effective innovators”), or cheer-leading for a new management idea, not infrequently by its originator (e.g. “buy my book to discover how polymorphosynergizing is the key to successful innovation!”).

What has united both of these types of works on popular innovation is the sympathetic magic term ‘disruption’. It is held up as the desired and required form which innovations should take. You’re not actually innovating unless you’re disrupting something. Admittedly, there is the term ‘sustaining innovation’, but even this is split into its ‘discontinuous’ and ‘continuous’ flavours. The discontinuous type is that which is transformational, and in flights of corporate hyperbole, revolutionary (notwithstanding the fact that revolutions are, historically, bad news for business). Continuous sustaining innovation is evolutionary, and thus boring. That falls less into the camp of innovation, and more in the wilderness of just keeping your head above water. Continue reading

The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame

This entire interview with Colum McCafferty is well worth reading, especially the parts referring to the contrast between liberal citizenship and republican citizenship, as well as the growing use of the word “consumer” in place of any reference to citizens. I want to mark the following for attention too though:

Regarding this use of language to limit of discourse, you refer to the expression ‘the political class’ as another term that has become widespread, even among well-regarded journalists.

Well, before this term arose you had a tendency to talk about ‘The Politicians’, which is also used as a way to eliminate discourse. It eliminates the very possibility that there are different politicians with different points of view. Michael D Higgins called it “an ecumenism of blame”.

You now see this term changing to ‘the political class’, so you have the political class and people change within it, but it’s permanent.

I have noted previously that we would do well to have a Godwin’s Law for the term ‘neoliberalism’, given that in the best case such references are exercises in taxonomy (I think I called them ‘trainspotting‘ in one of my more uncharitable harrumphs). Invoking neoliberalism is similarly a way to eliminate conversation. Zizek also refers to this rhetorical maneuver in the use of the term “fascist” as a way of shutting down an argument. There is both an ecumenism of blame as well as an agnosticism of responsibility here. If some politician or political act is identified as neoliberal, then room for alternative action and debate is effectively precluded. We don’t even think in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘constitutional’ or ‘unconstitutional’. Something is simply ‘neoliberal’ – and that’s it.

This is at once a testament to how what is identified as ‘neoliberalism’ utterly suffuses our discourse. I think of the title of Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes here as a symptom of this, of which he is of course aware. The best an alternative to this status quo can be is to have the tragic honour of a lost cause, because the possibility of a real alternative doesn’t exist. This term is a testament to how impoverished the debate is in terms of constructing possible worlds, and scenario planning, and how so much effort has been expended in the equivalent of Late Scholastic taxonomizing of minutiae.

I recall a recent experience after a conference where the discussion of an academic by others (including one quite senior figure in the field) turned to what can best be described as a Blutreinheitsgebot. This academic, early career, on whom an anathema was declared was identified as ideologically suspect purely because he didn’t discuss the topics they did by invoking neoliberalism. His attempt to step beyond this term (for whatever reasons) was singled out as suspect and cause for censure in and of itself. This is the paranoia of the academy taken to its absurd conclusion. Thankfully, however, there may be an equivalent of the Gartner hype cycle for such ideas, and we can move beyond this limited and limiting idea, beyond the identification of problems, to a fuller concept of critique which is proactive as well as descriptive.

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Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

A structural reason for technology’s ethical blind-spot

I want to offer here a possible structural reason for why when technology is subject to ethical critique that their response is often all too insufficient. I am thinking primarily of the inability of the targets of Evgeny Morozov‘s broadsides to respond either tonally or in terms of content to what he has to say. One reason I have heard in discussions is that those who are subject to attack want to somehow “rise above” what is being directed at them, but to me this misses the point, and the dual failure here (of style and content) is connected to something broader.

Returning for a moment to those doing the attacking, such as Morozov or Dale Carrico, they tend to view the ethical blind spot I mention here as wilful, as a sin of commission rather than one of omission.  The sense one gets in reading their pieces is that technologists are dastardly and malevolent in their intentions. I shall add a caveat here, and say the positions of Morozov, but especially Carrico are considerably more sophisticated than this outline can do justice to, but that neither of these figures (whom I agree with across the board) are the focus of what I am saying. Their critique is a staging area for my observations here. I am less vituperatively inclined Continue reading

Where are the higher education libertarians?

How come we don’t have a Tea Party of research evaluation? Where is the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag for the REF?  How come all the market ideology which is imported into the administration of universities is the of the unreconstructed sort? How come the focus is on ever more regulation (of individual researchers and their work), whereas elsewhere in this grand market regulation is anathema? Where is the spontaneous order ideologues, the invisible hand acolytes for the knowledge economy? Where aren’t academics and researchers recognised as the experts they are and so left to self-regulation, as is the norm elsewhere in the ‘market knows best’ dreamlandfantastytime? If the Michael Goves and David Willetses of the world are bringing market mechanisms into education and research on the principle that these realms are markets already, well why not expand this thought to its ultimate conclusion. If they are markets (of ideas, of knowledge, of technology, of understanding) then the last thing required is any government involvement. Or perhaps it is an incoherent analogy from the off…

Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44