15 February 2020

Chinese Room

John Searle invented a thought experiment to show that no computer can ever be said to have a mind or be conscious. By extension, this assertion would contradict the suggestion above that the human mind is nothing but the product of a physical, mechanical brain, for the brain is also "only" a physical system that obeys known rules.

The thought experiment goes like this: suppose there is a person who does not speak Chinese, locked into a room with a big book of rules. They receive questions written in Chinese through a slot in the door. They then use pen and paper to follow the rules in the big book and produce some Chinese characters based on what they received. This turns out to be a response to the Chinese question in Chinese, which they post back through the slot. For someone outside the room, it seems they are having a conversation in Chinese, yet the person does not speak a word of Chinese.

Since the book clearly does not understand Chinese, and the person does not understand Chinese, they together don't understand Chinese, Searle says. And they are just like a computer with a program. So no computer will ever understand Chinese, even if they appear to do so.

But far from supporting this conclusion, the Chinese room is actually a very good argument for emergent qualities. Neither the person nor the book has an understanding of Chinese (the person doesn't know Chinese, and we normally don't think of books as having an understanding), yet their combination does, and together they function as a Chinese-speaking person with consciousness. Similarly, no single neuron in the human brain can speak a language or be conscious, yet these are true of the whole brain.

Searle's argument is said to apply to computers with programs only, but that is just another way of saying that as soon as you can separate a system into a processor and a program, or two piles of neurons, somehow it suddenly loses all claims to be conscious.

This is very much linked to how we define consciousness. The best we can do is to say that something is conscious if we think it is, or if it's like a human being, which we usually think is conscious. Alan Turing invented the Turing test to define intelligence this way (something is intelligent if it behaves like a human being), and it may very well be the only definition we have of consciousness as well.

Also note that when we judge something to be conscious, we can only use information of that thing that reaches us - in the case of the Chinese room, the pieces of paper coming through the slot. We cannot see "inside" the thing to make our judgement. In other words, something is conscious if it appears to be conscious, just like we deem another person sad or happy if they appear sad or happy - we don't dissect their brain first to make sure they really are.

7 June 2018

1 + 1 Ways to Cook Rice: A Robot’s Guide to Starting a Civil War

My latest SF novel is available on Amazon! It tells the story and the consequences of the War of Rice, a nonsense conflict that takes a pretty ugly turn.

On a planet named Glaucon, the love of two young robots—and a whole kingdom—is torn apart by the question of how to cook the perfect rice. The lovers are caught up in the animosity between their families that revolves around opposing culinary persuasions, and while the debate escalates into a religious opposition and political machinations lead to a holy war, the two robots fight new lovers, fend off accusations of murder, and bear the ennui of attending executions—only to meet again at the height of an impossible battle to forgive, and start again.

Follow these links to get it on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

20 March 2015

Postface: ‘For the Righteous Shall Inherit the Land’

“Don had just entered the tube connecting the room with the rest of the palace, when he heard a rumbling noise in the past.”

Sadly, I don’t have much time to write. I try whenever I can, especially when I have a story to be finished. So I got into the habit of using my phone to type away if I have more than ten minutes on my hands. This, I’ve realized, had a number of consequences. Firstly, I make a lot of typos. The buttons are uncomfortable, and the letters are small–I simply don’t notice if I miss something in the middle of the rush hour. Secondly, the text has an abrupt rhythm. Paragraphs get extremely short, often consisting of a single sentence. The story becomes like a person gasping for air, or like on-line news articles with a maximum of ten words per paragraph. (They must think everyone has ADD–but then if I really do, I probably wouldn’t bother to scroll down and read the hundredth paragraph reiterating the same information as the very first one.) I think this is because the screen of the phone is small, and I’m led to believe that I’ve written six lines already when in fact I’ve only typed the conjunctions I start my sentences with.

And thirdly, well, I may encounter sentences like the above. “Don had just entered the tube connecting the room with the rest of the palace, when he heard a rumbling noise in the past.” It is obviously wrong (how can you hear something suddenly in the past?), and one would immediately delete or correct the offending ending (which I did), but I found the sentence itself captivating. Coordinating the past with the room, it seems to treat time as space. The nonsensical notion is, in a way, amusing, like the all-too-famous phrase “colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” One may stop to muse over it. One may associate the rumbling noise with the past, the past that comes nearer every minute forcing us to escape from our fate into the future. One may associate it with destruction, with our impending destiny, or with the washing machine. (Note to self: don’t forget to call the landlord tomorrow and complain about that weird couple living above.) I would’ve loved to use this sentence, but I feared this story would be the wrong context for such a phrase. It might be more at home where “out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.”

This sentence made me realize one more thing: that chance plays a probably more important role probably more often in artistic creation than we’d like to think. The two great competing traditions of art-making, classicism–where an artist is more an artisan with a craft to master–and romanticism–where the artists is a seer(ess), producing masterpieces under inspiration (influence?) but without intent–so, neither of these traditions allow any role to be played by chance. The artist should either be a master or a medium.

But, if we care to think, nothing could be farther from the truth. An artwork is meaningless unless it is looked at, listened to or read–in other words, the artwork is born in the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the beholder. But an artist has no control over who–if anyone–is going to encounter the work. The very existence of the artwork, therefore, is dependent on chance. Or read the biographical musings of any author. They will tell you of chance things seen or heard, sudden realizations and chance encounters (with long-forgotten acquaintances who’ve lived lives outshining the Odyssey, or with future editors). Should we then praise the artist at all for a masterpiece? or should we attribute the success to mother nature for placing the right person among the right circumstances at the right time and in right frame of mind? And is it by chance that we have Shakespeare and Synge, or is it a necessity regulated by the laws of physics? Is our very existence a product of fortune, or part of a divine plan?

Talking of divine plans, let me admit that I’ve always been fascinated by religion. I mean fascinated in the sense that I’ve always wanted to understand it, and we’ve long known that humankind regularly deludes itself into thinking that it has understood something by writing about it. And I am no exception. This is what happened in “For the Righteous Shall Inherit the Land,” where I tried to take a situation that presents itself as a clear danger in our days, show how it can come about, and exaggerate it to the point where it destroys its own raison d’etre; hoping that I’d understand it in the process.

I’m not sure if I’ve managed to pull this off in the way I wanted to, or if I’ve managed to find a balance between the inherent tragedy and the absurdity of the situation. But I think it was worth a try.

For the Righteous Shall Inherit the Land (Part Two)

Click here for part one »

They’d just escaped a geyser that inexplicably erupted from the ocean of the geologically inactive Europa, when Chad–the guy who loved beer, women and life, and wore a t-shirt that read “mate,” a pathetic double entendre of self-definition and favourite pastime–sitting unnaturally erect and white, announced that he was going to kill them all by having the ship trapped in the gravitational pull of Jupiter and burning it up in its thick atmosphere.

He held a small packet in his hand. ‘Stay where you are. Trudder, you switch the ship to manual. If you don’t do all as told, I’m going to use this. Your choice.’

‘What’s that?’ Chastity asked hardly audibly.

‘c-jcjoloolc-,’ Ms Trudder replied.


‘The Europan equivalent of TNT,’ said Sarah instead of the guide. ‘They use it in mines to blow the rock up into manageable pieces.’

‘Yes,’ Ms Trudder confirmed without looking up. ‘You’re a very clever lady, Ms Brown. I – I just want to say I’m glad you’re here. Of course I don’t mean that-’

‘Cut the crap and do it!’ Chad snapped.

‘How harmful is that thing?’ John asked, still holding the hand of his elderly wife.

‘Not very bad out of water,’ Ms Trudder continued, as if Chad wasn’t there at all. ‘But it releases a toxic gas. So I guess it’s pretty dangerous after all.’ Her voice was calm and reassuring. Somehow she seemed prepared. ‘Chad–that’s your first name, right? I hope you don’t mind me addressing you like that, but you know, right, that you’ll also die?’

‘Of course I know. Now switch the pilot to manual and change the coordinates, or I’m setting this thing off.’ And with that, he flicked a red handle protruding from the device.

‘Don’t! Please…’ Chastity whimpered. ‘Why do you want to kill us?’

John jumped to his feet. ‘Isn’t there a radio on this damn thing? We can’t just sit here and let him do whatever he wants!’

‘The old man’s right,’ Chad said, pointing the device at Ms Trudder. ‘Switch off the radio. No tricks. I’m not that dumb. Now stand up and do it. And you,’ he said to John, ‘you just sit down, or you’re dead with your pretty wife.’

John slowly sat down again. Ms Trudder rose, and with Chad right behind her, walked to the controls. The red panic button was flashing leisurely in the middle of the panel.

‘You touch that button, and you know what happens. They say the gas isn’t quick. It’s a slow, painful, but certain death.’

With hands slightly shaking, she pushed the main radio switch to the off position, and disconnected the autopilot. Its voice boomed into the cabin.

‘Manual control activated. Good-bye.’

‘This is the ship speaking,’ said another, synthesized voice. ‘Route has been deleted. Please give new destination.’

‘Fourty-four, thirty-two, seventeen,’ Chad said.

‘Give us a little time to say good-bye,’ Ms Trudder begged him.

‘And alert the universals. No. Enter the code.’

‘What was it again?’

Chad did not reply.

‘I’m sorry, what are the coordinates?’

Ms Trudder heard a thump behind her. It was Chad. He fell flat on his back, dropping the c-jcjoloolc-, which slid on the floor to the rear end of the cabin. Sarah jumped up and grabbed it before it hit the wall.

It was John who had the gun.

‘I got him in the leg. He should be all right if we have something to dress the wound.’

But Chad wasn’t screaming. He didn’t seem to notice the pain. ‘You desecrated our city and abused our buildings,’ he murmured under his breath. ‘You deserve to die.’ Lying in a puddle of water, he slowly closed his eyes. The puddle grew, and the water soaked his clothes.

Don went over to the body, bent down, and checked the pulse.

‘I think he’s dead,’ he said.

‘But I only shot him in the leg!’ John protested. ‘That couldn’t have killed him!’

‘And he’s not bleeding. It’s just water coming out of him,’ Ms Trudder murmured, then she suddenly raised her voice. ‘Ahem! Well, I guess I’ll switch everything back on again.’ She was already tweaking the controls when Sarah stood up with the c-jcjoloolc- in her hand.

‘Stop right there, Trudder. Get away from that.’

Ms Trudder held her hands up in the air. ‘What now?’

‘I’m finishing what that dumbass started.’


‘That! Over there! The bloody idiot who couldn’t tell a spaceship from a snow globe!’

‘You mean you’re going to kill us like Chad?’


‘No kidding.’

But Sarah did not reply.

‘All right,’ Ms Trudder continued, ‘what do you want me to do?’

‘Get to the back. Over there. Not just you, everyone. Come on, people. Get up and move! Oh, and John, I have my middle finger on the security lock. If you shoot me as well, this thingy here automatically takes care of the rest.’

‘But, but…’ Charlotte started, ‘I thought you and me, I mean…’

‘Sorry, sweetie. This is important. Something you wouldn’t understand, you see?’

‘What’s important?’ Ms Trudder asked like a negotiator with her hands still in the air. The five of them flocked together in a corner, and Sarah stood triumphantly in the middle.

‘Oh, you haven’t figured it out, Ms Brains, have you?’

‘No,’ Ms Trudder replied, trying to sound as submissive as possible.

‘Oh God, you’ve spent ages on this moon, and you don’t know shit about it! You and your mates! What’s important? I’ll tell you. C-ui-’, she gurgled, and spat out a mouthful of water. Don looked at the others. Sarah wiped her mouth and continued. ‘Europa’s important. The Sphere’s important. It should’ve been left empty! That’s how it’s used. But no, you and your dumbfuck friends had to put an office in there.’

‘And? What else?’ Ms Trudder inquired as if they were chatting away above two steaming cuppa.

‘And the library. Removing all the coils…’

‘Sorry,’ interrupted Chastity, as Jon wiped the moist off his forehead. ‘Did you say the sphere is used? I thought…’

‘You think too much,’ Sarah snapped. ‘Especially for someone of your hair.’

‘Oh just cut that and get on with it!’ Jon gurgled. ‘Look at what they’ve done to the Palace! Putting candies in the Throne, and building toilets over the entrance!’

‘What on earth happened to you, dear?’ Augusta asked, looking at Jon as if she’d never seen him before. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Of course I am!’ Jon shouted, pointing the gun, without even looking, at his wife. ‘Excuse me…’ and he blew his nose into a tissue that immediatel turned into a handful of pulp with the fluid that flowed out of the orifices.

‘Entrances?’ asked Charlotte, feeling less and less in danger as the situation around her started to become farcical. ‘Those wormholes in the palace were entrances? But for whom?’

‘For the Europans,’ Ms Trudder replied. ‘They are very flexible and swift. They can be thin like a thread, going through the narrowest gaps, but can also be strong and powerful.’

‘But they aren’t able to move with anything in their way, can they?’ Don asked.

‘No,’ Sarah replied quickly as the conversation was getting out of her hands. ‘They’d knock everything over. That’s why everything’s supposed to be empty and smooth. You know what you idiots call the Great Exhibition is? Hm?’

‘A warehouse,’ said Augusta, burying her face in her furrowed, shaky hands. Her voice sounded empty but reassured.

‘Exactly. They brought there all the stuff they didn’t need. And you thought it was an exhibition.’

Surprised, Jon looked at his wife. ‘How do you know?’

Augusta slowly looked up. Her face was covered in tears.

‘But what do they look like?’ Charlotte asked. ‘And how come I’m the only one who doesn’t seem to know a thing about all this?’

Ms Trudder raised her arm, and extended her index finger towards the girl. A small droplet of water glittered under her nail. ‘What do we look like? We’re formless. We’re the movement. We’re the water that flows, and the force that keeps the world in motion.’

Charlotte wiped her forehead. When she replied, her voice was calm. ‘You don’t need to tell me that, u-c-nojc-. I thought you’d go for the tall one.’

‘Five minutes until gravitational lockdown,’ announced the ship. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot already glared through the windows.

‘What’s going on?’

‘I did set the course to hurl the ship into Jupiter,’ replied Ms Trudder. ‘That’s how I wanted to kill you. I mean them.’

‘I just wanted to shoot them all,’ laughed what used to be John.

‘I also wanted to use c-jcjoloolc-,’ said Sarah’s body, taking another box of the explosive out of her bag, ‘but obviously cjl-ujoiol had the same idea. I guess he thought the gas would be too slow, that’s why he went for that hijacking thing.’ She glanced at Ms Trudder. ‘I guess you got there first.’

Ms Trudder’s eyes surveyed the whole group. ‘So we’re all…?’ They looked at each other uneasily. She continued. ‘So we’re all here to destroy the intruders?’

The expression darkened on John’s face. ‘It seems so, yes.’

They saw Sarah cursing silently. ‘Damn! I’ve come here to do away with them all.’

‘So have we, I guess,’ the thing in Ms Trudder said. ‘Can we get who was inside that Chad together?’

‘ cjl-ujoiol will be all right if we get back under the crust again.’

‘Four minutes to gravitational lockdown,’ said the ship, as emotionlessly as if it was announcing tomorrow’s tidal forecast. Ms Trudder jumped to the controls, and pulled a lever.

‘OK, where should we go?’

‘Home,’ John said.

‘No,’ interposed Sarah. ‘We came here to give our lives to the cause. We can’t go home. We’d look ridiculous.’

‘There’s no cause any more. They’re dead, sugarplum,’ Charlotte said in a down-to-earth manner.

Sarah got impatient. ‘You don’t get it. It’s the principle. If you set out to sacrifice yourself for the protection of your planet, you can’t just go home and say mission accomplished.’

‘Why not?’

‘For jovesake we’re drifting!’ yelled Ms Trudder. ‘Make up your minds!’

‘Well, I‘m not going home.’

olol was not very good at controlling John, but he managed to turn his head toward the girl. ‘Look here, cjoii-oi, it’s even better if you could defeat the enemy without having to sacrifice yourself. It shows how pathetic they are. They need you down there.’

‘A pathetic enemy?’ Sarah shrieked. ‘Is a fucking victory over a bunch of nitwits supposed to be more heroic than over an enemy that can actually fight? You think that’s going to make me feel better?’

‘She might be right,’ Charlotte said. ‘We can’t let them know that we were so dumb to get into each and every one of them to get rid of the rest.’

‘Well, I want to go home,’ olol replied. ‘And if I can, I want to save cjl-ujoiol, too. Look at that puddle! How can you just stand there and not want to do something about him?’

‘He’s the lucky one,’ Sarah replied. ‘He got what he wanted. I didn’t.’

‘Well, if you’re not coming home, you can just step outside and evaporate.’

‘If she opens the lock, we’re all going to evaporate,’ noted Ms Trudder.

Don was just sitting at the back. He was grateful that they seemed to have forgotten him. He didn’t want to kill anyone. Hi didn’t even want to hurt anyone. Let alone die.

He wondered whether he’d also been overtaken by an Europan. And then he wondered how much time he had left to find out. Having no idea what to do, he just sat there counting the seconds until the point when the engines of the ship would be too weak to fight against the gravitational pull of the gas giant.

His shoes somehow began to feel strange. Forcing his finger inside the vamp he found out why. His socks were soaking wet.