Just FYI: “Watson” can’t “think”

Last week, I saw this interesting piece in the WSJ that I meant to pass on, and I will now, in case there are some of you feeling terribly inadequate (as a species) because “Watson” won on “Jeopardy.”

The headline and subhed state the case well:

Watson Doesn’t Know It Won on ‘Jeopardy!’

IBM invented an ingenious program—not a computer that can think.

But if you read on, you get a better explanation of why one would not say that “Watson” thinks:

Imagine that a person—me, for example—knows no Chinese and is locked in a room with boxes full of Chinese symbols and an instruction book written in English for manipulating the symbols. Unknown to me, the boxes are called “the database” and the instruction book is called “the program.” I am called “the computer.”

People outside the room pass in bunches of Chinese symbols that, unknown to me, are questions. I look up in the instruction book what I am supposed to do and I give back answers in Chinese symbols.

Suppose I get so good at shuffling the symbols and passing out the answers that my answers are indistinguishable from a native Chinese speaker’s. I give every indication of understanding the language despite the fact that I actually don’t understand a word of Chinese.

And if I do not, neither does any digital computer, because no computer, qua computer, has anything I do not have. It has stocks of symbols, rules for manipulating symbols, a system that allows it to rapidly transition from zeros to ones, and the ability to process inputs and outputs. That is it. There is nothing else….

All the same, as in the original Chinese room, the symbols are meaningless to Watson, which understands nothing. The reason it lacks understanding is that, like me in the Chinese room, it has no way to get from symbols to meanings (or from syntax to semantics, in linguistic jargon). The bottom line can be put in the form of a four-word sentence: Symbols are not meanings.

Feel better? Whether you do or not, it’s useful from time to time to stop and think about what computers actually are.

3 thoughts on “Just FYI: “Watson” can’t “think”

  1. Steven Davis

    When I first saw the headline I thought you were talking about Derek Watson, the USC football player who was kicked off the team a couple years ago and was recently arrested for drugs in Greenville.

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