Monday, April 2, 2012

Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room

You've probably heard one or another peppy manager-type or cleric or motivational speaker cite a particular nugget of ancient Far Eastern wisdom: a mysterious truth revealed by the etymological observation that Chinese words for "danger" and "opportunity" are the composite elements of the Chinese word for "crisis." That is, from a perspective allegedly implicit in the Chinese language, a crisis is both danger and opportunity.

The project on which I work for a living found itself at one of those is-the-crisis-danger-or-is-it-opportunity junctures last week. In an e-mail weighing in on a colleague's proposed path out of the thicket, I concluded with a mangled version of this etymologically suspect aphorism. I did excuse myself by noting the weak foundations of Ye Olde Orientalist Saying, but when I mentioned the e-mail to my Mandarin-speaking partner we dove into the Chinese more deeply. That's when things got interesting.

"Bring up Google Translate," my partner suggested. I did. And then he did a bit of typing into my web browser.

Now we could have just gone to Wikipedia's article, Chinese word for "crisis" ... where we learn that:
Chinese philologist Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania calls the popular interpretation of wēijī in the English-speaking world a "widespread public misperception." Mair argues that while wēi (危) does roughly mean "danger, dangerous; endanger, jeopardize; perilous; precipitous, precarious; high; fear, afraid" (as in wēixiăn 危险, "dangerous"), the polysemous jī (机) does not necessarily mean "opportunity." The compound noun jīhuì (机会) means "opportunity," but jī is only a part of it; jī has numerous meanings, including "machine, mechanical; airplane; suitable occasion; crucial point; pivot; incipient moment; opportune, opportunity; chance; key link; secret; cunning." More importantly, these are "secondary" meanings—according to Mair, jī only acquires the connotations of secondary meanings (such as "opportunity") when used in conjunction with another morpheme (in this case, in jīhuì); by itself, it does not necessarily have these meanings. Mair suggests that jī in wēijī is closer to "crucial point" than to "opportunity."

Though he's not a credentialed philologist, this is just about exactly how Matthew explained the loose construction of the "crisis = danger + opportunity" myth to me. But if we'd left it at that, I would have lost a chance to play interesting on-line games with Chinese characters.

Check it out.

First, we asked Google to translate the words danger and opportunity into simplified Chinese characters:

Then, we took the first character of each of the compounds returned by Google Translate, and used them as input to see how they translate back into English:

Neat, eh? You can try it in your own web browser, but if you don't care to and can't make out the fuzzy screenshots, the upshot is this:

  • take the first Chinese character of what Google Translate returns for "danger"
  • concatenate the first Chinese character of what Google Translate returns for "opportunity"
  • feed the resultant two characters into Google Translate and translate it back into English; the result is "crisis"

But that's just the start.

Because it was here that I flashed on a professor of philosophy from whom I took a course when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. Prof. John Searle had recently published his "Chinese Room argument" on the relationship between rule-driven manipulation of symbols (a.k.a. computation) and understanding; cf. "Minds, Brains and Programs" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In the more than three decades since, Searle's argument has spawned a breathtaking span of debate on the relationship between syntax and semantics -- formal operations on language vs. meaning. A cleanly articulated 14,000 word summary of the give-and-take can be found on-line in David Cole's The Chinese Room Argument, published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Here's the paragraph-length description of Searle's argument, from the introduction to Cole's SEP article:
The Chinese Room argument, devised by John Searle, is an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence. The argument centers on a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters, such that to those outside the room it appears as if someone in the room understands Chinese. The argument is intended to show that while suitably programmed computers may appear to converse in natural language, they are not capable of understanding language, even in principle. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. Searle's argument is a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence, and the argument also has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.
This is a blog post, not a philosophical treatise, so I won't (foolishly) attempt to critique three decades of argument conducted by very, very smart people.

What I will say is that our Google Translate experiment demonstrated Searle's original point with searing immediacy. It was a you can do this at home moment.

Not only do I have no ability whatsoever as a Chinese philologist, I'm not even a Chinese speaker. Yet I easily followed (my partner's) English language directions about how to snip this or that character from a 'page' (result pane) out of a 'rule book' (Google Translate) to construct an apparently meaningful argument about the relations between Chinese words.

At the end of the exercise, I still didn't understand Chinese.

It's true that I can speak a few phrases of Mandarin. I learned them when I prepared for travel to China a couple of times over the past decade. I can say "yes" and "no" and "I don't want it" and "chili oil." I can count off a few numbers. The most complex statement that (a) I can speak in Chinese, and (b) is actually comprehensible to Chinese-speakers is this one:


Transliterated into Roman characters, this amounts to something like: "Wo boo hway shwo han yu."

Translated, it means: "I can't speak Chinese."

And there you have it.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations
Google yanks APIs, developers caught with pants around ankles
Are computer languages really languages?


  1. Thanks for the above in-formations these are really helpful

  2. cute and silly post for amusement I guess, as it misses the point of so many objections.

    If you read through all the replies, especially after the first few, you'll see serious problems in Searl's experiment.

  3. @Gary Bernstein -- the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Searle's Chinese Room argument, to which I linked in my post, also summarizes the several decades of replies and debate. There are serious challenges to Searle's position, yes; and serious responses to those challenges as well.