Hot Air

My all-time favourite in the literature of exaggerated claims on behalf of the digital computer is from John McCarthy, the inventor of the term ‘artificial intelligence.’ McCarthy says even ‘machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs.’ And indeed, according to him, almost any machine capable of problem-solving can be said to have beliefs. I admire McCarthy’s courage. I once asked him: ‘What beliefs does your thermostat have?’ And he said: ‘My thermostat has three beliefs — it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here.’

— John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science, 1983

(Searle responded with the “Chinese room argument” — a computer program that formulates convincing answers written in Chinese to questions posed in Chinese doesn’t “understand” Chinese any more than would an English-speaking human who followed the same instructions. “There is more to having a mind than having formal or syntactical processes. … Minds are semantical, in the sense that they have more than a formal structure, they have a content.”)