Geraldine Ferraro and the Chinese Room Problem
John Searle explored the question of whether we cared about the actual personality of an entity solving a problem in his famous Chinese Room example. Searle was examining the question of whether a sufficiently advanced computer could successfully mimic a human being. And whether in fact anyone would care whether a computer or a Chinese man were actually in the room. This has an unsuspected application in politics. Because one can use the same logic to ask whether if we had no way of knowing if a black man, white man or a woman was sitting in the White House it was possible to tell the difference or whether the question was relevant at all.
Geraldine Ferraro claimed that Democratic voters care whether Barack Obama is black; and that fact gives him an advantage. The Washington Post reports:
Ferraro recently told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif. that if Obama were "a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Today Ferraro told ABC she was "absolutely not" sorry for what she said.
Of course a number of pundits have argued that Hillary Clinton equally benefits from identity politics. Ferraro herself said that if she would not have been Walter Mondale's running mate had she been a man. And some have alleged that if Hillary Clinton ran completely on her resume, rather than partly upon her gender, she wouldn't qualify for the Presidency. One way to subtract race and gender from the question of competence would be to imagine Clinton, Obama and McCain locked in Searle's Chinese Room. In the original:
Searle asks his audience to imagine that many years from now, people have constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. The computer takes Chinese characters as input and, following a program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it easily passes the Turing test. In other words, it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a human Chinese speaker. All the questions the human asks are responded to appropriately, such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human. The conclusion that proponents of artificial intelligence would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does.
Searle went on to argue that instead of a computer the room could contain Searle himself following a detailed set of translation instructions. The answers would still be indistinguishable from the output of a real Chinese and no one could tell the difference. In other words, if race or gender didn't matter, we could lock up McCain, Clinton and Obama in a room and submit a series of competence questions to them and choose the President simply on the basis of the answers.
We could ask questions like "did you ever have a security clearance?", "what experience do you have in administration?", "will you go forward with missile defense?" "produce a balanced budget", etc. HR consultants do this all the time to shortlist applicants for jobs. But the Chinese Room experiment would be largely biased towards McCain.
The reason why politics is conducted on TV is because things like race, gender, height, beauty, speech accent, etc are supposed to matter. Politics is partly a choice between persons, not just between programs. And it's useless to pretend otherwise. For some reason it's considered a mark of bigotry to imagine that personalities don't matter. It would be better to acknowledge that it does.
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