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.

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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.

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What Ursula K. Le Guin has taught SF

(Or, on two kinds of science fiction): With Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with an alternative notion of what science fiction can be. In a previous post, I was somewhat concerned about setting up a gender-based dichotomy of this genre, but this doesn’t worry me so much now. As such, I want to suggest that Le Guin gives us an alternate vision, a departure from traditional space operas, those great books that extoll the great works of great men.

In giving us tales in this collection of Hainish cycle novels (namely: Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions), we read about an interstellar civilization, and we would superficially appear to be in a realm similar to Asimov, Banks, or Simmons. But we are not privy to the thoughts and memories of galactic administrators, generals, or politicians, those most powerful in our imagining. What we get are not the great ceremonial city squares, the heraldry, the displays of might that cross the gulf of immeasurable distance (in time, space, imagination). Instead, we are told of the weeds growing up between the flagstones in these grand civic spaces, the forgotten semi-sanctioned research foray, and of those who have escaped the attention of Greatness.

This is a rueful SF, possessed of a knowledge that the greatest effort of all is not to be found in priapic  displays of techno-prowess, but in attempting ever greater fidelity to discovering what the human is. Unlike some other SF authors, Le Guin is not interested in trouble-shooting the implications of products which have not yet been invented. She does not mine as yet undeveloped markets for narrative fodder (nor in so doing, hasten their coming). She treats us as essentially human, rather than incidentally so. She treats the human as an end in itself. By doing so, her readers are considered with greater respect than by any other author I can currently think of. This is the animating spirit of everything Le Guin writes, never way-laid or silenced for cheap pay-offs or lazy plot effects.

In this reading experience, we are not played, nor led, nor otherwise dictated to. Authorial imperiousness is nowhere to be found – and what a relief this is. There is no “LOOK AT ME. Amn’t I terribly clever?” which can infect this genre of ideas. Curiously, Le Guin’s authorial voice is one that listens, and one which encourages us to do the same through its willingness to quieten itself. It is silent in that manner of walking along a path with a companion, and having our conversational gambit go unanswered. We look askance at our friend, but in that precious moment we see, and hear their attention directed away from us. So we stand in silence – and listen. With Le Guin, we quieten the din that accompanies living and reading. We still the contact between author and reader, moving beyond trust to something else. This something else, this elsewhere, this otherwise, these fringes, these lapidary shards of the previously unnoticed are why we should read Le Guin.

Writing about women in SF: Le Guin, Finkbeiner, Bechdel…

Doing some preparation for a post about Ursula K. Le Guin, I began to get worried. I am part of the problem. In wanting to say that I think we have something to learn from Ursula K. Le Guin, and in suggesting that she is different from main-line SF, I implicitly, accidentally set up a dichotomy. It is all-too-easy then to retrofit this onto a framework of gender, and then we just have another piece of text which has been sucked into the same old sexist vortex of male SF authors are from Mars, and female SF authors are from etc. Even looking up a copy of Worlds of Exile and Illusion online, I read that here we find that ‘three classic novels are offered in one volume by SF’s greatest living female writer.’ Greatest living female writer. Right. Even to get rid of the problematic italicized word there, it would still be read as ‘greatest living female writer.’

To deal with this to my own satisfaction, I am going to borrow from male gay David M. Halperin’s wonderful book, How to be Gay. In a chapter detailing the development of his book from a seminar he offered at the University of Michigan, he delineates his own attempts at developing a theoretical framework for his project. Gay studies, scholars of homosexuality, and queer theorists do not often speak the same conceptual language. Continue reading

Technology and A.I. in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

At the start, the very appearance of the monolith creates a disturbance within the hominid family. The microcosm of wider society is this group, so we are to assume, and the immediate implication is thus that these are our primitive ancestors. We are presented with as close to that fictional-mythical state of nature as it might be possible to be, a picture by yet another artist, but shaved of Rousseau’s sentimentality. We are confronted by its artistic subversion of that ideal state, ground down to its base honesty. The monolith appears, and that dissonant, malevolent chorus crescendos. The break with the past is irrevocable, and the disruption will never be undone outside of acts of the imagination. At the same time as science and technology are born, with this moment of bone wielded as tool, as weapon, is born all the myriad problems of application.  Continue reading

A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion, and the failure of SF

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What can space opera tell us about the future?

The Beyonders in The Algebraist of Iain M. Banks, the Ousters in The Hyperion Cantos of Dan Simmons, the Slashers in Century Rain: all are from 90’s – 00’s SF, and all seem to manifest some sort of dissatisfaction with the inability to write through the time-wall. This is a recasting of a phrase found in Ernst Jünger‘s Eumeswil:

There can be no doubt that gods have appeared, not only in ancient times but even late in history; they feasted with us and fought at our sides. But what good is the splendor of bygone banquets to a starving man? What good is the clinking of gold that a poor man hears through the wall of time? The gods must be called.

I take this to imply that there is sometimes a point in our speculations that it is difficult, to the point of perceived impossibility, to proceed outwards into a realm of new possibility that we have convinced ourselves exists. We hit a bottleneck of time and thought. Continue reading

Fantasy and the possible

“Yet the invocation of magic by modern fantasy cannot recapture this fascination, but is condemned by its form to retrace the history of magic’s decay and fall, it’s disappearance from the disenchanted world of prose, the ‘entzauberte Welt’, of capitalism and modern times.”
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The desire called utopia and other science fictions [71]

The major works of serious literary fantasy reflect upon this concept of magic-as-waning (John Crowley, Sheri Tepper, Susanna Clarke, et al.). How can this magic be linked properly to its reserve of power, namely human creative power? This creative power has become alienated, and the dialectic of enlightenment applies here just as much to religion because of fantasy’s secular-thus-literary realm of exploration. Well, it ought to explose, but more often the literary fantasy (or just plain fantasy, the literary mulls things over more profoundly than this) will at least reflect on its own alienation. 

John Crowley is a prime example of this in both his masterpiece Little, Big as well as the Ægypt cycle. Susanna Clarke upsets our expectations by positing a final waxing of magic rather than its disappearance from the world, which emphasises all the more how the magical truly has waned from our world and even our imaginations. It is striking that Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was so acclaimed, but what is even more striking was that its reception seemed always to be accompanied by a note of surprise that this, a book that involved magic, was not hopelessly puerile. We could, this raised-eyebrow subtext suggested, actually enjoy something that wasn’t on the Eastenders end of the realism continuum, yet that was not of the dwarves and unicorns variety. It was becoming acceptable to note that there was indeed a literary fantasy that could be read by those coming from the literary vector rather than the other way round, coming from fantasy but being discerning. Previously it was Borges and Calvino who were in this non-purely-realism citadel (acceptable, as Gore Vidal notes regarding another topic, because they don’t write in English, which we might call the language of instrumental reason), but others have joined them. One would hope, however, that as fantasy became literary, non-discussions as to the artistic merit of previous bastions should really become moot (such that we can say J.R.R. Tolkien was not “snubbed“, he simply didn’t deserve the Nobel). 

If we can reflect on the passing of magic in a fantasy text, is this more than a shallow generic narcissism? Does it point to an intriguing approach whereby the old Freudian idea allows magic to be regarded as wish-fulfillment, rather than having little to do with the “thinking through of the dialectic” that Fredric Jameson is proposing. The alienation of magic has much to do with the alienating power of technology and reason, how these forces of industry and enlightenment are regarded as inhuman, rather than as the ne plus ultra of humanity. We might make a connection here with Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws“:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. 
  2. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This nexus of technology and possibility is left unresolved and unexamined in the realm of magic, and we still put our eggs in the basket of wish fulfillment. That fantasy revists and rehashes the magic-as-waning trope again and again shows that we fundamentally do not understand where we are now, where we have come from, and the fact that imagination is not a diversionary exercise in wish-fulfillment. Fantasy, by its obsessive compulsion to repeat the same ideas again and again is begging somebody to notice it, to see that it matters, that it affected us before, and can again.