Friday, 2 December 2011

The Chinese room

"Mary wants ice-cream," said the mom-bot.  It opened the oven and peered inside.
"No I don't!" shouted Mary, the adorable red-headed rug-rat from the top of the stairs.
"Yes, you do," said the mom-bot taking a wooden spoon out of the oven and looking at it quizzically.  "You have derived intentionality."
"Aaaargh!" shouted Mary, falling down the stairs as her accident-prone brother Maurice opened the bathroom door and knocked her over.  She bounced on her head twice, her cries becoming more pathetic, and then Dad was stood in front of the television.
"What rubbish are you watching this time?" he said.  "Can't you ever watch one of the educational channels?"
"It's teaching... me... about... derived intentionality!" I said, knowing that Dad might just miss the pauses while I worked out how to make Mom-bot and me sound like something more than cheap daytime television.  Rumour had it that the show didn't even pay for it's own mom-bot, but used an old one that was supposed to have been returned to the mom-bot corporation.
"I would have thought that you knew by now that the newspaper doesn't have a mind of its own," he said.  He was frowning at a piece of paper he was carrying and I knew that he wasn't really listening to me, he was just talking while he thought.
"Well, some newspapers do," I said.


It turned out that Dad had missed the launch of The Chinese Room, a new national daily paper at the start of the week.  I explained that the paper contained a thinstick, a wafer slice of memory that could hold an AI that would allow you to navigate with easy around the paper and tell it what kind of stories you liked.  As it learned, it would automatically generate reading lists for you, and adjust the adverts that were available to the ones that best suited your needs.  It's no mom-bot, but it's what you got! was the tagline that had been getting the most publicity.  Dad was unimpressed.
"So, navigating the paper," he said, his tone heavy with sarcasm, "is now easier than turning the pages?  Bizarrely I see that you still need to use your hands, so this doesn't even benefit people with no arms, or just plain lazyitis."
"You only buy the paper once," I said patiently.  "So you don't have to stop at the news-stand every day."
"Unless you smoke.  Or like to buy mints for the tube, so that you don't have to smell the smoker sat next to you.  Or you want a different paper to the Chinese room, or–"
"OK, dad!  Jeez, look, it's easier to read on a crowded tube because it's just one page and you don't have to keep turning it.  It's like a Kindle!  Or Fire, or Conflagration, or Hypercaust, whichever one you stopped paying attention at."
"I remember the Hypercaust," said Dad quickly.  "Had more storage space for books than there were books to buy on the e-Store.  That was kind of funny, really.  Oh, and didn't it have that battery fault where every so often it would get red hot and set fire to soft furnishings?  Only because they'd made it out of titanium it invariably survived the blaze?"
"Do you have to be so technologically negative?  If you had your way we'd be living in the Dark Ages still."
"I think we are still living in the Dark Ages."  Dad was suddenly quiet.  "That's why I do my job and try to see that other people do theirs too."
I glanced at the quiescent mom-bot in the corner reflexively, I really didn't want to.  That we still had a functioning mom-bot unit, even if Dad wouldn't allow it to be turned on, after the war-bot virus epidemic was testament to Dad doing his job and doing it well.  Most other families in our neighbourhood were having to choose between replacing the mom-bot and repairing the damage it had done.  And I found myself agreeing with Dad that it was somehow wrong that they all seemed to be opting for replacing the mom-bot.
"Look, the paper's convenient," I said.  "It's new, it's nice."
"It's in this house without my permission," said Dad.  "Hand it over."  He held his hand out, and with bad grace I passed him my Chinese Room.  It took him barely ten seconds to spot a seam I'd never noticed in the e-Paper, crack it open with his pocket-knife and remove the thinstick memory wafer.  He turned it over in his hands, scrutinizing it.
"This is part of a mom-bot core," he said, pointing to a black-inked serial number on the wafer.  "Before or after the virus, do you think?"
"I'm not betting against you, Dad," I said.  "I haven't won yet."
"That's not true," said Dad.  "When you were five you picked the swan over that child's mother and you won then."
"That was traumatic!"
Dad just chuckled, and passed me the dead paper back, keeping hold of the slice.
"Look up what a Chinese room is, sometime," he said.  "It goes right back to your derived intentionality.  Then come and tell me why you should be hoping that the paper is well-named."

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