How Space Travel Can Kill You
Astronaut Leroy Chiao is a veteran of four space missions, recently acting as Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station. He has logged over 229 days in space - over 36 hours of which were spent in Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). He served as a member of the White House appointed Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.
Dr. Chiao left NASA in 2005 and is involved in entrepreneurial business ventures and works in the US, China, Japan and Russia. He is a director of Excalibur Almaz, a private manned spaceflight company. In addition, he is a director of InNexus, a biotechnology/pharmaceutical development company. Active as a consultant and public speaker, he also serves as the Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute User Panel, which is attached to the Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Chiao is a director of Challenger Center and of the Committee of 100. He is also an advisor and spokesman for the Heinlein Prize Trust.
Question: Are you still involved with NASA at all?
Leroy Chiao: Yes, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute was created about, let's see, I think it was about 12 years ago by NASA, and it was looking for a way to funnel research dollars through this institute to go out and collaborate with universities and other research institutes in a way that NASA would have more difficulty doing because NASA is a government agency. And so, it was created and run by the Baylor of College of Medicine and I was hired on, probably about, let's see, I guess it's been about three years. And I am the Chairman of the User Panel, and what we are, we're a panel composed of current and former astronauts as well as current and former flight surgeons. And what we do is we advise the Chairman, we're an Advisory Panel, and we advise the chairman on the research projects that we think are operationally relevant. That is, what do we need to learn about and what do we need to develop a protocol for to deal with a medical problem in space?
So, as an example, one of the biggest concerns about going out beyond lower Earth orbit is the radiation. We find that exercise seems to counteract a lot of the negative effects of space flight, like bone loss and muscle atrophy and cardiovascular systems issues, but really, the radiation is something you worry about. If you start going on a trip to Mars, you're going to get away from the Van Allen Belts, you're going to be susceptible to solar flares, and what do you do. So, that's one of our big areas of concerns and so we see us advising the Director for the NSBRI, but we should fund more research on developing better detectors, or pharmaceutical counter measures maybe, to help protect astronauts from radiation, or even looking at shielding. What kind of lightweight shielding would be effective to create a safe haven in a spacecraft going to Mars.
Other areas, as I mentioned, were bone loss and muscle loss and cardiovascular atrophy. Those are always significant areas that we are worried about. You know, exercise, as I said, seems to counteract a lot of that, but right now, we exercise two hours a day on the station, which is a huge hit out of your day. I mean, it's great for staying in shape, but you know, it cuts into the productivity of the crew and if you look at how expensive it is to get a crew into space, if we can keep them healthy and have them exercise, but spend less time doing it, we can get more done.
Question: What sort of exercise regime do astronauts perform in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, it's very important, first of all if you think about it, especially in a long flight like a six month space flight and on the ISS. If you didn't exercise and used the analogy on earth, it would be like laying in bed. So, just imagine laying in bed for several months, and even just trying to get up and walk, you probably wouldn't be able to. But if you got up and you exercised two hours a day, you'd probably be okay, and that's the same in space.
The exercises we do, we do cardiovascular and resistance exercises, and so we have a treadmill, but of course, we have harnesses and rubber Bungies to hold us down to the track so that we don't float away. We have exercise bicycles and we also have a resistive exercise device that uses loaded cords that we can vary the resistance on and you can attach a bar or a harness to these cords and do weight lifting type exercises. So, that helps keep your bones and your muscles in shape.
Question: What has been done to address bone loss from space travel?
Leroy Chiao: Well, one of the ultrasound experiments that we did onboard was very interesting. We were doing something called telemedicine, where we were using the ultrasound. I'm not an M.D., and neither was my crew mate onboard, but we were able to, with very little training, show that we could produce diagnostic quality images of bones, eyes, internal organs, and things like that. And so, one interesting application of this ultrasound is the possibility that you could possibly use it to measure critical bone areas, areas where we know historically have seen a lot of loss, and you could actually track during a long space mission do measurements and track if you're losing bone in these areas. So, that's something that's very exciting because on Earth, when they check you for bone loss, you get in this big machine, I mean it's huge. It's the size of a room and it's got a platform with an x-ray that scans your whole body and in critical areas and it takes a while and it just wouldn't be practical to have a machine like that in space. So, if you could show that using a portable diagnostic quality ultrasound, which basically is the size of a laptop with some extensions to it, if you could actually measure reliably, bone loss with that, that would be a great tool to have.
Question: What about blood tests in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, there's some very exciting work in that area and one of the researches is funded by NSBRI, is working on exactly that. And that has real application because when you're monitoring an astronaut, and we're not always monitored, but during certain times when we're having a physical exam, you know, we have to take blood samples, or we have to give other samples, and it's not easy to do, especially in zero gravity. So, if you can imagine trying to squeeze blood out of a finger prick and then getting it into a capillary tube and getting that into a machine to be analyzed. It all can be done, and we do it, but it's – then you might have some droplets of blood floating around. So, if you can find a non-invasive way to do it that would certainly make life easier for us onboard. Also, when you're in a spacesuit, we do some very rudimentary monitoring right now in both the Russian and U.S. spacesuits. We load up a simple electrocardiogram and the flight surgeons can look at your heartbeat while you are doing the space walk. They can also – well, they don't have it right now, but they can also theoretically look at maybe with this device the oxygenation of your blood and other parameters just to determine the health of the astronaut who is doing the space walk.
So, this kind of technology is very exciting and has real application in space. And the neat thing about a lot of the NSBRI projects, or that are funded by NSBRI, is they also have application for patients on the ground. The ultrasound that I mentioned has application not only in space for a long mission or for a mission to the Moon or Mars, but also in remote areas on the Earth. Not even just – I’m not even talking about expeditions like to the Antarctic, but just a remote area, a small town somewhere. The local doctor is not going to know everything, and so if that person can link in with a diagnostic ultrasound to the hospital in New York City through the internet, then they can do a very quick diagnosis of something that's wrong with someone that's in this remote area.
Question: How is fatigue an issue in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well if you ask the astronauts, will tell you there is no issue, you know. But of course, fatigue is a problem. I mean, it's as big a problem in outer space as it is on the ground and you could make an argument that it is even more critical in space because a mistake up there could be literally, life threatening, or could cause big problems in the mission. So, fatigue is an issue that we are concerned about. We are definitely scheduled for a full eight hours of sleep every night, but just like on Earth, you're often busy and you don't – you usually don't use all that eight hours to sleep, you're usually staying up and catching up on things, or doing something you want to do, looking at your photographs, or watching a movie, or something.
And so, over time, over a long mission, fatigue can really build up and that's something that we are trained as astronauts to be self-aware of. We have to kind of monitor it ourselves, but we also have tools and some of which are also funded by NSBRI. We have self-assessment tools, computer-based tools to see how we are performing mentally and there's some also very interesting technology and work that's being funded by NRSBI to look at facial recognition to look at your patterns to see if you're experiencing stress or fatigue.
I find that interesting and I have to tell you, as an astronaut, it makes me a little bit concerned because as an operator I can see getting up there and thinking, well now I've got to control my facial muscles to make sure they don't think I'm stressed out. But really, it's a kind of thing that I think will gain acceptance with gradually. But it probably has more to immediate application in things like homeland security, and looking at facial recognition of people going through airports and things like that to see who's under stress.
Recorded on December 16, 2009
Before humans can spend long periods of time in space, scientists need to find a way to solve the many health problems that astronauts face, including bone and muscle loss.
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Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.
- The Chinese Room thought experiment is designed to show how understanding something cannot be reduced to an "input-process-output" model.
- Artificial intelligence today is becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to learning algorithms but still fails to demonstrate true understanding.
- All humans demonstrate computational habits when we first learn a new skill, until this somehow becomes understanding.
It's your first day at work, and a new colleague, Kendall, catches you over coffee.
"You watch the game last night?" she says. You're desperate to make friends, but you hate football.
"Sure, I can't believe that result," you say, vaguely, and it works. She nods happily and talks at you for a while. Every day after that, you live a lie. You listen to a football podcast on the weekend and then regurgitate whatever it is you hear. You have no idea what you're saying, but it seems to impress Kendall. You somehow manage to come across as an expert, and soon she won't stop talking football with you.
The question is: do you actually know about football, or are you imitating knowledge? And what's the difference? Welcome to philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room."
The Chinese Room
Searle's argument was designed as a critique of what's called a "functionalist" view of mind. This is the philosophy that argues that our mind can be explained fully by what role it plays, or in other words, what it does or what "function" it has.
One form of functionalism sees the human mind as following an "input-process-output" model. We have the input of our senses, the process of our brains, and a behavioral output. Searle thought this was at best an oversimplification, and his Chinese Room thought experiment goes to show how human minds are not simply biological computers. It goes like this:
Imagine a room, and inside is John, who can't speak a word of Chinese. Outside the room, a Chinese person sends a message into the room in Chinese. Luckily, John has an "if-then" book for Chinese characters. For instance, if he gets <你好吗>, the proper reply is <我还好>. All John has to do is follow his instruction book.
The Chinese speaker outside of the room thinks they're talking to someone inside who knows Chinese. But in reality, it's just John with his fancy book.
What is understanding?
Does John understand Chinese? The Chinese Room is, by all accounts, a computational view of the mind, yet it seems that something is missing. Truly understanding something is not an "if-then" automated response. John is missing that sinking in feeling, the absorption, the bit of understanding that's so hard to express. Understanding a language doesn't work like this. Humans are not Google Translate.
And yet, this is how AIs are programmed. A computer system is programmed to provide a certain output based on a finite list of certain inputs. If I double click the mouse, I open a file. If you type a letter, your monitor displays tiny black squiggles. If we press the right buttons in order, we win at Mario Kart. Input — Process — Output.
Can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
But AIs don't know what they're doing, and Google Translate doesn't really understand what it's saying, does it? They're just following a programmer's orders. If I say, "Will it rain tomorrow?" Siri can look up the weather. But if I ask, "Will water fall from the clouds tomorrow?" it'll be stumped. A human would not (although they might look at you oddly).
A fun way to test just how little an AI understands us is to ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." Unsurprisingly, you won't get what you want.
The Future of AI
To be fair, the field of artificial intelligence is just getting started. Yes, it's easy right now to trick our voice assistant apps, and search engines can be frustratingly unhelpful at times. But that doesn't mean AI will always be like that. It might be that the problem is only one of complexity and sophistication, rather than anything else. It might be that the "if-then" rule book just needs work. Things like "the McDonald's test" or AI's inability to respond to original questions reveal only a limitation in programming. Given that language and the list of possible questions is finite, it's quite possible that AI will be able to (at the very least) perfectly mimic a human response in the not too distant future.
What's more, AIs today have increasingly advanced learning capabilities. Algorithms are no longer simply input-process-output but rather allow systems to search for information and adapt anew to what they receive.
A notorious example of this occurred when a Microsoft chat bot started spouting bigotry and racism after "learning" from what it read on Twitter. (Although, this might just say more about Twitter than AI.) Or, more sinister perhaps, two Facebook chat bots were shut down after it was discovered that they were not only talking to each other but were doing so in an invented language. Did they understand what they were doing? Who's to say that, with enough learning and enough practice, an AI "Chinese Room" might not reach understanding?
Can imitation become understanding?
We've all been a "Chinese Room" at times — be it talking about sports at work, cramming for an exam, using a word we didn't entirely know the meaning of, or calculating math problems. We can all mimic understanding, but it also begs the question: can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
The old adage "fake it, 'till you make it" has been proven true over and over. If you repeat an action enough times, it becomes easy and habitual. For instance, when you practice a language, musical instrument, or a math calculation, then after a while, it becomes second nature. Our brain changes with repetition.
So, it might just be that we all start off as Chinese Rooms when we learn something new, but this still leaves us with a pertinent question: when, how, and at what point does John actually understand Chinese? More importantly, will Siri or Alexa ever understand you?