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The Chinese Room is Not a Restaurant

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“What’re you looking at?”

Yata usually wasn’t nosy when Sasaki was on her computer. It was more than likely he’d see something he didn’t want to. Perhaps he’d asked because the screen was clearly full of text, rather than photographs of rotting bodies.

Really, it was how Sasaki had been concentrating, with such a disconcerted expression on her face. What could disturb her?

“I’m reading a refute of The Chinese Room experiment,” she explained, “by Se-”

“By Searle, yeah,” Yata nodded, “I’ve heard about it.”

“Chinese room?” came Numata’s voice, muffled because he’d had his head down on his arms on the table, and apparently wasn’t sleeping anymore, “Are we going out to eat?!”

Yata turned and shook his head. “No. It’s a thought experiment where-”

“Oh, more of those things. Like Shredder’s Cat,” Numata grinned, imitating putting something through a shredder… presumably a cat, as he added, “Meouch.”

“It’s Schrödinger’s Cat,” Yata sighed, knowing he should’ve given up ages ago, “And it’s really different. It’s more about computers and AI, and how computers can’t be as intelligent as the human mind… kind of.”

“Something like that,” Sasaki said, turning her chair around and laying one arm in her lap, other hand dangling over the arm of the chair, “In the vaguest sense. But you can take it out of the context of computers and think about it more generally. Do you know any Chinese?”

Numata pointed at himself. “Uhh… Ni hao? Is this a test?”

“Sorry, I should have been clearer. Can you read any Chinese?”

“Everyone can, some of the kanji are the same,” Yata pointed out.

“Alright. How about… Korean?”

Numata grinned. “Well I looked up how to say ‘Want to—’” He cut himself off as Sasaki’s expression darkened, and pretended to cough. “Kimchi,” he finished, lamely.

“I’ll take that as a no. Alright, say you’re locked in a room with nothing in it-”

Kereellis decided to rear his ugly head. “WHY PRETEND, LET’S PUT ON A PRODUCTION!” Yata shushed him quickly, and Sasaki continued her explanation.

“You’re locked in a room with nothing in it but a database of questions written in Korean and answers to those phrases. They’re not translated, so you don’t know what they actually mean. Now, through a slot in the door of the room, you begin to receive notes. The notes are also written in Korean, but by inspecting the symbols and using the database, you recognize they are the questions in the database, and answer them using the database, but you don’t actually understand, do you?”

Numata’s eyebrows were drawn together. “Yeah I… guess not…? This isn’t about how eventually I’d figure out what they meant by, you know, discovering which were the most common and then-”

“No, not at all,” Sasaki said, with a hint of frustration.

Yata chimed in, “It’s theoretical. Korean’s not the best example, since it has alphabetical elements, and you could begin to see repetition of characters… but you still wouldn’t actually know what it meant, like how you can’t understand katakana if you don’t know what the other word means.”

This wasn’t helping. “YOU’D HAVE BETTER LUCK EXPLAINING TO AN ACTUAL EMPTY ROOM.”

“Regardless, you can’t understand no matter how hard you may try, but you’re still answering the questions correctly, so it doesn’t matter if you understand or not. To the people outside the room, you may as well be Korean.”

Numata was still frowning. “I get it, I guess. But, um… what’s the point of it? At least the Schrödinger’s Cat thing kind of had a purpose. Kind of.” He scratched at his chin and squinted his eyes—not that you could tell through the sunglasses. “Wait, no it didn’t! These theoretical things are stupid.”

A smile crept onto Sasaki’s face. “Remember, it’s about computers. In this situation, replace yourself with a computer. A computer doesn’t understand what’s input into it, not the same way a human being does. A computer simply accesses the database available, based on what has been input, and no true comprehension takes place… it just returns the note with the answer it’s been told to use.”

“Why didn’t you just explain it like that?” Numata asked, letting his head fall backwards, “That makes sense.”

“Or does it?” Yata asked perkily, “Like Sasaki said earlier, she was reading a counter argument to it. People have been coming up with reasons it’s wrong for years now. Some even say it shouldn’t be called ‘The Chinese Room’ because it’s… racist; that Westerners automatically find Chinese to be a strange language and calling it that predisposes them to… prejudice?”

“People shouldn’t take these so seriously,” Sasaki said, crossing her arms, “It’s clearly just a question about how plausible artificial intelligence is. Thinking about it generally, there’s a valid point: computers only know as much as we allow them to. Even technology that allows a computer to constantly search and add new information is limited by programming and storage capabilities and information available, this kind of experiment is better applied to the question: ‘What is human understanding?’ Who knows how long it will be before science can master the concept of cognition? Perhaps our own minds aren’t so different from a computer.”

Yata turned to her, grinning. “Yeah, even that huge computer they were working on at IBM couldn’t compete against human opponents sometimes, despite being constantly updated via internet!”

Numata let out a moan that surprised them both and each turned with concern. “Please,” he groaned, “Pleeeease, Buddha, God, anyone, make them stop!”

It may not have been Buddha, but there was an answer to his prayers in the form of Karatsu pushing open the door, a convenience store bag in one hand. He held it open for Makino, who walked under his raised arm, both of them staring at Numata, who had sprawled half his body on the table. “Hey, at least we get one extra soda now that Numata’s gone,” Karatsu grinned, putting the bag down, “I call it.”

Like, what’d you guys do to him?” Makino chirped, tilting her head, making her skeleton earrings dance.

“Torture. Merciless geeky torture,” came Numata’s muffled voice, a bit nasal because he was smashing his nose down, “You guys are my gods now.”

“FOR ONCE,” Kereellis barked, “I’M ASHAMED TO AGREE WITH GOATEE. TORTURE LIKE THAT IS BANNED IN PEACE TREATIES ACROSS THE UNIVERSE!”

“Seriously?” Yata looked at his own hand, incredulous under his bangs.

“YEAH! EVERYONE KNOWS HOW AI WORKS AND IT’S TORTURE TO HEAR YOUR BACKWARDS ASS THEORIES! HOW IS IT YOU HUMANS GET EVERYTHING SO WRONG!? THE THING ABOUT AI IS-”

Sasaki reached up and clamped the puppet’s mouth shut, to everyone’s surprise.

“Maybe it’s best left a mystery,” she suggested.