Did a Story about a Computer Made of Humans Scoop Searle’s “Chinese Room” by 20 Years?

A story called “The Game” by Anatoly Petrovich Mickevich (writing under the pseudonym A. Dneprov), published in 1961, tells the story of a fictional event in which people who don’t individually understand Portuguese are successfully arranged into a “computer” that translates a sentence from Portuguese.

Craig Alan, “All Together Now” (Keith Haring Tribute)

You can read the story and some information about its background and discovery at the website of the Center for Consciousness Studies (CSC), part of the Department of Philosophy at Moscow State University, where it was posted last year.  The story describes 1,400 people being directed to function as  “either a memory cell, a total mechanism, a time-delay line, or a simple switch,” in an attempt to discover an answer to the question, “Can mathematical machines think?”

Here’s an excerpt:

When the layout was complete the stadium looked like a large gym with fourteen hundred young people inside ready to exercise. Then again came the professor’s voice:
“Here are the rules.
Binary numbers will be given to comrade Sagirov from the northern stand. For instance, ‘one-zero-zero-one.’ If the first digit is ‘one,’ comrade Sagirov is to pass the number to the person on his right, whereas all numbers starting with ‘zero’ shall go to the person on his left.
All numbers which start with ‘double ones’ or ‘double zeros’ go to the person right behind comrade Sagirov. As for the others, whenever you receive a number please add your personal number to it, and depending on what you get pass it on to the person beside you. In addition, if the group number is …”
And so forth.
Zarubin explained the rules three times, then asked “Clear?” and heard our unanimous “Clear!” After that he said:
“Let’s get started then.”
Standing between teams “110” and “1001” I could see Zarubin’s assistant, Semyon Danilovich, talking to the Georgian delegates. They must have needed some additional guidelines.
On the stroke of 10:00 am the game started.
I saw heads starting to turn right and left at the northern stand area, then these moves went further to cover the entire stadium.
These weird moves followed across the vast area like waves flowing from person to person and from group to group. The message was approaching me through a sophisticated zigzag route, and, finally, the guy on my right, carefully listened to the one behind him, took a piece of paper, did some quick calculations, touched my shoulder, and uttered:
According to the guidelines my job was to cut off all digits apart from the first four which I had to pass on to the next team.
“One-one-one-zero,” I said to the girl in front of me.
In less than a minute I had another binary number which I passed on.
The participants were beginning to move more and more eagerly. In about an hour, the field was continuously swaying, and the air was filled with voices shouting out pretty similar stuff — “one-one… zero-zero… zero-one…” — and pushing the numbers across lines and columns … Now they were coming from different parts of the stadium, absorbing the beginning and end of this strange game in which no one could understand a thing, but all awaited the paradoxical conclusion the professor promised.

It’s pretty short; read the whole thing, translated from its original Russian by A. Rudenko, here.

The introduction to story, written by whoever posts material for the CSC, notes its similarity to the well-known “Chinese Room” example by John Searle (previously).

Readers may also be interested to learn that the human computer depicted in “The Game” is very similar to one described by Cixin Liu in a passage in The Three Body Problem, the first book in his astounding science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Perhaps Liu who wrote that book in 2006, got the idea from Mickevich.

(via Daniel Groll)

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