Posted on: November 22nd, 2009 The Chinese Room

by Alec Deason

It held out its palm for Jason to see. There was a single grain of sand on the worn plastic surface.

“I have many thoughts,” the thing elaborated.

It gestured at a dozen or so woven grass baskets that dotted the dune above the high tide mark. Each was filled to the brim with sand.

“Do you have a…” Jason began but stopped and started over. “Do you remember the manuscript we brought you?”

He spoke in a slow, slightly sing-song voice like he was talking to a child or an idiot. It was a reaction he couldn’t really control. The thing withdrew its hand, glancing down into it and then back up at Jason.

“This one is about irrigation practices in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region,” it said.

“A woman brought the manuscript. About a week ago.”

The woman, Charlotte, would be doing this part too instead of Jason having to come down here, but she was sick and deadlines were deadlines. The thing stared at him for more than a minute in silence. Jason thought about how this conversation would seem in a Turing test. Not all humans could pass them either.

“I kept the manuscript,” the thing said at last.

It reached into the hole in its plastic shell where the neck emerged and pulled out a rolled bundle of paper which it offered to Jason. The paper was discolored and felt like it had been out in the rain. In was covered in Chinese characters which were blurred to illegibility by the moisture.

“Thank you,” Jason said. “We were hoping that you had given it some thought as well.”

“You are welcome,” the thing said and then after a pause, ”I have many thoughts about the manuscript.”

It turned and lumbered towards the nearest of the baskets. Its feet sank deep into the sand at every step. The thing dipped its hand into the basket, brushing at the handful of sand it retrieved until there was only one grain left. It held this out for examination. The other grain, Mongolian irrigation, was clutched between its thumb and index finger so it would not get lost.

“Its about the relationship between calligraphy and typography in modern Chinese writing,” it said.

“That’s very interesting, but have you thought about the translation we asked for?”

The thing stared at him in silence again before answering.

“No,” it said. “Do you have anything to write on?”

Jason dug an empty spiral bound notebook and a pen from his backpack. He handed them to the thing, which set its grains of sand onto the basket. It began to write smoothly, filling page after page. Jason sat down to wait.

He dug up a handful of sand and let it sift through his fingers, thinking about those early pioneers of machine translation who, after decades of failure, had decided that any machine capable of manipulating human language in a meaningful way would have to be at least as complex as a human. He wished those people had been wrong or that their descendents had found a way to make their complex machines seem more like humans. Or less. It wasn’t clear in which direction the problem really lay.

The thing finished. It handed the notebook back to Jason. He flipped through the first few pages. They were in English. Those with better taste assured him that the thing’s work was always beautiful.

It reached out and plucked a grain of sand that had stuck to his shirt.

“I have a thought,” it said.

He turned to trudge back up the dune without responding. The thing didn’t seem to mind.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories

One Response to “The Chinese Room”

  1. Rachel Green Says:
    November 22nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Marvellous concept and execution. Thank you.

  2. Rachel Green Says:
    November 22nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Marvellous concept and execution. Thank you.