X-Message-Number: 11917
Date: Mon, 7 Jun 1999 16:22:32 EDT
Subject: Donaldson, unique symbol sets

Thomas Donaldson wrote:

> To Bob Ettinger: I did not say quite what you seem to think. The question
 >I asked is not whether there is any way to communicate with some other
 >intelligence (and note that an array of dots can be interpreted in more
 >than one way ... it will be interesting to see if the message to tell
 >about (I know about it too) will actually work) but whether the set of
 >symbols we use in our language, when considered in all the different
 >statements we make, will have an unambiguous interpretation. The message
 >you describe tried hard NOT to use undefined symbols ... though it may
 >have failed in its intent.  >>

The underlying question was whether a computer, processing "mere" symbols, 
could never really understand anything, as Searle claims--could never connect 
to outside reality or have any unique interpretation for its succession of 
internal states. I said that the existence of a code intended to convey 
messages to intelligent extra-terrestrials seemed to me good evidence that a 
"mere" collection of symbols might indeed have only one reasonable 
interpretation, that one being related to physical realilty. I have been 
tremendously impressed by the history of cryptography, showing how hard it is 
to conceal information; the flip side of this is that probably it is pretty 
easy to convey information when you want to, regardless of cultural or 
language differences, if the communicants are at our level of sophistication 
or higher.

Certainly, as Thomas says, messages could be misinterpreted,  especially 
short ones; and even more certainly, natural languages such as English have 
ambiguities even for those who grew up with them. BUT if we invent a new, 
rational language with consistent rules, then it ought to be possible to 
teach that language to aliens using only dot-dash transmissions. Our 
two-dimensional (or three-dimensional) arrays of numbers or pixels could not, 
I think, be misinterpreted for very long, by  beings even remotely like us. 
For example, if we send drawings of crystal structures--e.g. that of salt, 
along with the atomic numbers of sodium and chlorine, and our language 
symbols for those elements and for the compound--it would be next to 
impossible for an intelligent alien to misinterpret that. Then we could build 
up stepwise until eventually we arrive at the stage of animated color 
graphics in 3-d with stereophonic sound, and they can see and hear us. 
(Smell, taste, and touch are not impossible either.)

So in principle, I think, an ordinary computer could "understand" what it is 
doing, even if it does not interact with the outside world as an organism 
does. With such interaction added, of course, the computer looks more and 
more like a person; but it would still not necessarily have feeling, and 
feeling is the essence of personhood.

Robert Ettinger
Cryonics Institute
Immortalist Society

Rate This Message: http://www.cryonet.org/cgi-bin/rate.cgi?msg=11917