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What is a book?

I was chatting to a friend of mine the other evening.  He’s a big fish in the AI pond, making his first set of millions (of pounds that is) by applying genetic algorithms to the world of financial forecasting.  His first big money-spinner was back in the 1990s and since then his fishness has continued to grow in regards to all things artificially (?) intelligent (?).  Our chat turned to John Searle’s thought experiment: The Chinese Room.  Regular readers may remember a passing reference to the experiment in an earlier column.

A theory of mind known as functionalism emerged in the 1950s.  Here the idea is that having a mind is a matter of being able to perform the functions of a mind; things such as understanding, judging and communicating.  Now, the chief claim of what’s known as ‘strong AI’ is that an AI system can be considered as a conscious mind if it can demonstrate these functions.  Searle’s experiment set out to debunk this claim and his scenario can be summarised thusly:

We are to imagine Searle who knows no Chinese, locked in a room and given a large batch of Chinese writing. In the room there is an instruction book written in English, writing materials, and slots for incoming and outgoing paper. Searle receives paper with Chinese writing on it through the in-slot and, by following the instructions in the book, draws Chinese writing on the paper, and sends it through the out-slot. The operation of the Chinese Room would appear to pass a “Turing Test” conducted in Chinese: a native Chinese speaker outside the room would be deceived into thinking he was communicating with someone who genuinely understands Chinese inside the room.  But this of course would not be the case. Searle does not understand a word of the Chinese writing he would be responding to.

And thus, my AI pal and I concluded that The Chinese Room is a book.

In another previous column, I mentioned another pal of mine, Jorge Luis Borges.  In a series of lectures – “This Craft of Verse”, given between 1967 and 1968 at Harvard, he talks briefly on the ‘what is a book’ question.  He reminds us of how Berkley points out that the taste of the apple is neither in the apple (the apple cannot taste itself), nor in the mouth of the eater.  What is needed is the right kind of contact between them for the taste of an apple to emerge.

And so with a book.  A book is a physical object full of dead symbols but then the right reader comes along and there is a resurrection of the meaning of those dead symbols; what we might call the poetry ‘behind’ the words.

I am often asked for suggestions as to what the right book to read might be.  Schopenhauer wrote something along the lines of how many people mistook the buying of a book

for the buying of the contents of the book.  Instead of what books we ought to read, I reckon we must first develop our abilities to make the right connections.  To savour the flavours of meaning.

Until next time, Happy Eating!

Mr Liddy

Director of Literacy