Wednesday, March 12, 2008

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.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger unaha-closp said...

Have you been endorsed by George Bush?

3/12/2008 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Speeches that would be laughed off the stage if delivered by Whitey, are rated as all-time great oratory.
Lincolnesque, har de har!

...what a side by side comparision that would make!

3/12/2008 02:59:00 PM  
Blogger Cake said...

Obama's power is gained by making closet racists feel good that they can accept a brother with all the other closet racists.

In the end though, they don't really accept him, they just don't want to be outed by the other closet racists.

3/12/2008 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

The White Feelgood Demographic!

Kristen Takes the Stage on the NY Times Front Page!
Woman at the Center of Governor’s Downfall

“I just don’t want to be thought of as a monster.”

3/12/2008 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

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.

If she had not had her husband's last name, it wouldn't matter if she were a woman either.

3/12/2008 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Spitzer was only getting Regular Unleaded!

"She apparently was booked at about $1,000-an-hour, placing her in the middle of the seven-diamond scale by which Emperors prostitutes commanded up to $4,300 an hour."

3/12/2008 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Ferraro's Gone.
PC mau–maued Dhimmi Nation Rules!
(ourselves into oblivion)

3/12/2008 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Hope Muntz said...

Obama is the Affirmative Action candidate. Hillary is the Title IX candidate. McCain is the AARP candidate.

This is the logical conclusion to our decades of identity politics/constituency Balkanization.

3/12/2008 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

In a Turing test a decade or so ago the most powerful supercomputers weren't fooling people.

But there was small computer running a program that keyed on words to produce an almost randomly generated response. Ask it about the weather and it might reply, "I like sunny days but often the rain makes me feel peaceful".

A lot of people thought that was a human. Considering what many people are looking for in President, I could see us electing a Pentium PC running Empathy 3.3. Yeah, no problem.

3/12/2008 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

Ferraro's Gone.
PC mau–maued Dhimmi Nation Rules!

This is good in a way because it sets an ever more restrictive precedent about what is allowable speech. I saw Ferraro uselessly invoking her liberal record as a defense. She actually thought it would buy her a pass because of what she was. But like those Old Bolsheviks who thought the terror would pass them by, she discovered that the terror only bypasses those who fight back or hide.

Political correctness is like an anaconda's embrace. The anaconda waits for the slighest exhalation and tightens round it. Soon there is no more room for the victim to breath. And if the victim can fight back there are only two outcomes. Either the victim dies or he lops off the anaconda's head. Political correctness is slowly assuming the mantle of tyranny. All tyrants fall.

3/12/2008 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

386 sx!

3/12/2008 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

GATES: Tight immigration forces outsourcing...

NOT our Liberal Marxist Mafia Schools, further decimated by "immigrants," nooooo.

Americans just aren't able to learn math and science no more.

3/12/2008 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Sleepwalking Into a Nightmare: Remarks to a Jewish National Fund Meeting at the Selig Center
- Newt Gingrich,
ht - Whit

3/12/2008 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Chavo said...

Wretchard said: "This is good in a way because it sets an ever more restrictive precedent about what is allowable speech. I saw Ferraro uselessly invoking her liberal record as a defense. "

I saw her on GMA this morning. She came out swinging, I thought she really cleaned Diane's clock as an interviewee. However, she did not come out looking that great.

I said to my wife shortly after the interview, it was like watching someone who's morally indignant over being called on her liberal bona fides.

Like, "How DARE you question my motives... after all I've done for you (minorities, women, et al) people.

White, liberal, paternalistic guilt raises it's ugly head at being caught out.

3/12/2008 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So, is Geraldine Ferraro against affirmative action?

3/12/2008 04:46:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Leftists and liberals ought to loathe political correctness because political correctness devalues the worth of that which is praised by the inquisitor. Few things are quite as infuriating as not having one’s sincerity taken seriously, when one’s sincere statement is considered to be a platitude expressed to cover a hatred that is assumed to always be there. One’s speech becomes worthless when one is required to say it.

Political correctness does have a function, that of the inquisitor. And despite the inquisitor’s ostensible desire to stamp out heresy, his spotlight on the heresy only increases the heretic’s appeal. The function of the speech code is to promote the very racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and zealotry it ostensibly opposes.

3/12/2008 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"White, liberal, paternalistic guilt raises it's ugly head at being caught out."
Well Said!
Are Women Too Sexy for I.T.?

3/12/2008 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Video: CNBC host Jim Cramer in tears over Spitzer's downfall...
Such a lovely man! Gained fame by trashing reputations and lives w/o even taking them to court!
(With his wife by his side from begining to present)

3/12/2008 06:28:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

desert rat said...

"Seems MLKing was giving a presentation, in which he described families in Chi-town doing without basic services, water, power and the like.
Mayor Daley, the first and original, was on the platform as well.
After the presentation was over the Mayor approached Rev. King, notebook in hand, inquiring as to the names and addresses of these unfortunate Chi-town residents. He would not allow such a situation to exist, not in his domain. The situation would be rectified, post haste.

The Rev. had to tell the Mayor that there were, in actuality, to his knowledge, no such families in Chi-town. That he had included the reference, just to make a rhetorical point. Needless to say the Mayor was taken aback, he took the Rev. King's lies to be personally offensive.

3/12/2008 06:31:00 PM  
Blogger Fred said...


Thank you for providing us with the link to the speech by Newt Gingrich. It was a worthwhile read and I find that I am in complete agreement with him.

The current political season seems bogged down in trivialities that lesser minds indulge themselves in.

3/12/2008 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Lesser than yours!
Not having TV, I must admit when something big enough for New York comes along, I let myself induldge a bit!

It was moving hearing the pain in David Allen White's voice at what has become of Catholic Colleges, and his awareness that his challenge to bring a response via Shakespeare would not be accepted.
Vagina Monologues Si!
Shakespeare Nyet!
The Irish Rover

The Irish Rover is Notre Dame's conservative student newspaper, and here is its blog coverage of the controversy surrounding the return to campus of the Vagina Monologues.

And here is the transcript of my interview from yesterday with Professor David Allen White on the subject,
which includes his offer to visit ND to lecture on Much Ado About Nothing, a play he believes contains the complete response to the VM.

And here is my first post on the subject.


3/12/2008 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...


3/12/2008 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

(VIDEO) Obama's Pastor: "Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country controlled by rich white people."

3/12/2008 08:35:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

Tim Harford talked about race in his recent book, The Logic of Life. He said that racial bias is basically an inevitable economic result when there are two distinguishable populations that have even slightly different performance parameters. Since there is uncertainty about every paired evaluation, employers, for instance, can benefit by applying category assessments. This works both ways, of course. A basketball coach will have to justify picking a white candidate, but you may be aware that the overall impact of class stereotyping is negative for Black Americans.

This kind of self-reenforcing bias feeds back to the population by discouraging people. Reduced personal investment in education is a likely outcome when the class as a whole is pegged with the "uneducated" label, leading to lower levels of education, leading to a reinforced stereotype. Likewise, increased investment in stereotypically advantageous fields is also a predictable outcome.

So, if this kind of thing is inevitable, society is morally beholden to 1) measure individuals more accurately, 2) provide some sort of affirmative action.

Political Correctness regarding race is actually a collective form of affirmative action (which is essentially what Ferraro was saying). As long as you're not too proud to accept the benefits of PC, then it can be of help. I'm not sure that we should be willing to apply it at the highest levels, however. I don't want anyone elected to the presidency because people were afraid to ask questions.

A lot of black people think that, with some justification, that they are owed. They think this because they are undoubtedly subject to bias (which most white people somehow manage to deny). I don't think we can afford for this principle to chose our national leaders. A candidate has to legitimately earn the position. They have to pay the real dues.

Clinton, by being difficult, is actually doing Obama a big, big favor. If she takes a knife into the mosh pit, he's just going to have to learn to defend himself. And I don't think he's doing himself any favors by enforcing the PC rules. He is going to have to talk about race openly and receptively before this is over. Ferraro was trying to do just that. It's difficult, but I hope she doesn't give up too quickly.

3/12/2008 08:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ferraro is a Clinton plant. putting that idea out there for the Clintons. its quite a game to see Hillary "distance" herself from the comment. and Ferraro refuse to apologize! gotta hand it to the clintons they know how to manipulate the press and club the baby seal all at the same time!

3/12/2008 09:04:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

Ferraro doesn't need to prove herself to anyone. She's a senior figure in the Democratic Party. If she is doing this to help Hillary, it's only because she really believes it.

3/13/2008 06:54:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Sloat said...

Maybe if the Chinese Room experiment would be biased towards McCain, that means McCain is the best candidate. Just saying, is all.

3/13/2008 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger probus said...

doug-- let me add my thanks for ur post of the Gingrich speech-- good stuff-- i normally find him to be a fatuous ass, but it really made me think about how foolishly smug we are in this country when it comes to our enemies desire and abilities-- he should give this speech somewhere other than in Hawaii-- Regards, probus

3/13/2008 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger jj mollo said...


The Chinese Room and the Turing Test are fascinating thought experiments. You could spend a lot of time on them. The Wikipedia coverage is wonderful. I'm sure I looked at this stuff not too long ago - maybe less than two years, and it has been dramatically improved since then, answering a lot of the questions I had then.

The applicability of these concepts is rather broad, but I am having a little trouble understanding your suggestion that it extends to the question of whether I care with whom I am conversing.

The Turing Test was designed to answer the challenge of whether a machine can be truly intelligent. One byproduct of the Searle's analysis is that the intelligence resides in the algorithm, not the machine. Though obviously the speed-of-response issue is a problem. Most programmers expect that machines will eventually pass the Turing Test. The small talk simulator, Eliza, was pretty convincing even when I was an undergraduate back in the stone age. And Deep Blue has made a pretty convincing argument within its limited sphere.

What Searle is talking about is mind. He is stipulating the intelligence argument as given and moving on to the next question. He seems to equate the concept of "understanding" with mind. If I can be the computer without understanding the process, then we can say that the process itself involves no understanding, and thus no mind. Therefore, there is something about humans that can never be properly reproduced in a computer of any kind. Some people have suggested that Searle's scenario actually proves the exact opposite, that no concept of mind is necessary. It's a puzzle. Marvin Minsky and Seymore Papert developed a completely different concept of mind as basically a self-simulation involving lots of little mind-tools.

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. – Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, p. 308

Notice that he is conflating intelligence with mind, which Searle was trying to get away from.

So getting back to your analogy, it will always matter, according to Searle's concept, exactly who you're talking to, as long as you're really talking to them. However, the nature of your interaction is going to be dictated by both ends of the conversation. When we can see our interlocutor, the conversation is dramatically modulated in many ways. Internet conversation is not the same as interpersonal. So it might be fair to say that two people create a new mind when communicating, but its a different mind in different circumstances.

3/13/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Multiple decades ago, I took an undergraduate philosophy course taught by John Searle. It was all fundamental stuff, e.g. Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, etc. Searle was an excellent and entertaining lecturer. I was a bit disturbed by his picture in Wikipedia. When I last saw him, he as a young man.

Jj mollo mentioned the Eliza program and Turing test. There is another program that most people are familiar with called "Adventure". Adventure was the original text adventure game. There's a version of Adventure that has a special routine where a priviledged user can appear in a puff of blue smoke as a Wizard before another player. The Wizard then asks the player if he has any questions. Naturally the player assumes the Wizard is simply a parsing routine like Eliza and only capable of acting on key words. The fun comes in seeing how long it takes for the unsuspecting player to realize that he is actually communicating with another human being. It normally only takes about 5 minutes at the most.

3/13/2008 11:38:00 PM  

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