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.

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

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction – Ursula Le Guin quote


If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

The first cultural device was probably a recipient. . . . Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.

So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation (McGraw-Hill, 1975). But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story. We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.

And yet old. Before–once you think about it, surely long before–the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger–for what’s the rise of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug the ones you can’t eat home in–with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home. It makes sense to me. I am an adherent of what Fisher calls the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution.

Ursula Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing At The Edge of the World.

Available as webpage here and as a pdf here.

Newspapers, stories, imagination

I wonder if by reading scare stories in free newspapers, tabloids, and in the more gutter-y type of website, there is a cumulative effect on our imaginations. The above scene from Amelie made me think about this, as it is remarkable that she can imagine someone coming into her house, and for this to be a source of comfort. Of course, it is a fantasy of hers, but what is truly remarkable is that when there is a stirring of the beads that she is not ricocheted out of the dream into a nightmare. She does not jump out of her skin (as I know I would). 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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