Welcome to the Chinese Tent…
Imagine a large tent, and in it, a person who speaks only English. We’ll call this person the respondent. Outside the tent is a person who speaks only Chinese. We’ll call this person the questioner. The questioner writes a message in Chinese and passes it to the respondent through an opening at the front of tent. The respondent receives the message, then using an infinitely complex look-up system, matches the message on the card with a corresponding card containing a response in Chinese. The respondent delivers the pre-written response back to the questioner.
From the perspective of the Chinese questioner, the English respondent has read the message and understood it, demonstrating intelligence. However, has the respondent actually responded intelligently? Remember, the respondent does not understand a word of Chinese – he has simply matched up a pre-defined response to the received message.
This is not intelligence, but an elaborate forgery. The Chinese Tent exposes the folly of thinking that computers can actually be intelligent. Computers can simulate all sorts of reality; this does not make the reality they simulate real.
When a computer runs a virtual stock market exercise and makes millions of virtual dollars, the user does not become wealthy. When a computer runs a weather simulation that has 40 cm of rain falling in one day, the user doesn’t get wet. Yet when a computer simulates intelligence, we all rush to believe it’s actual intelligence, and not a pale imitation.
It all comes down to definitions, something technical communicators are very fussy about. So how do you define intelligence? Here’s one standard dictionary definition:
The key word here is understanding, which implies consciousness; the knowledge that one exists. This is something that computers simply don’t have.
However, if you define intelligence as the ability to give a meaningful response to a question, then computers could indeed be intelligent. A recent example of this was Watson, a super-computer developed by IBM. Watson was a contestant on the Jeopardy game show, beat his human opponents and won a million dollars.
Depending on the definition of intelligence you choose, Watson is intelligent or simply another version of the Chinese Tent. It is able to analyze questions and supply responses, but if you were to ask it how it felt about winning against humans, it would have no response.
- What is this object, thing or concept?
- What is it used for? Why would I use it?
- How do I perform a specific task?
- What are specific things I need to be aware of?
- What things or tasks are related?
An effective document, then, is one giant answer book. An intelligent document gives the user the answers they need, without the user even realizing the effort they made to find them.