Steelmanning the Chinese Room Argument

(This post grew out of an old conversation with Wei Dai.)

Imagine a person sitting in a room, communicating with the outside world through a terminal. Further imagine that the person knows some secret fact (e.g. that the Moon landings were a hoax), but is absolutely committed to never revealing their knowledge of it in any way.

Can you, by observing the input-output behavior of the system, distinguish it from a person who doesn’t know the secret, or knows some other secret instead?

Clearly the only reasonable answer is “no, not in general”.

Now imagine a person in the same situation, claiming to possess some mental skill that’s hard for you to verify (e.g. visualizing four-dimensional objects in their mind’s eye). Can you, by observing the input-output behavior, distinguish it from someone who is lying about having the skill, but has a good grasp of four-dimensional math otherwise?

Again, clearly, the only reasonable answer is “not in general”.

Now imagine a sealed box that behaves exactly like a human, dutifully saying things like “I’m conscious”, “I experience red” and so on. Moreover, you know from trustworthy sources that the box was built by scanning a human brain, and then optimizing the resulting program to use less CPU and memory (preserving the same input-output behavior). Would you be willing to trust that the box is in fact conscious, and has the same internal experiences as the human brain it was created from?

A philosopher believing in computationalism would emphatically say yes. But considering the examples above, I would say I’m not sure! Not at all!