A Russian Chinese Room story antedating Searle’s 1980 discussion

15 June, 2018

A. Dneprov: “The Game” (originally published in 1961)

“The Game” was published in 1961 in journal “Knowledge-power”, but before we move to the original text, we would like to say a few words about the author. It should be noted that “a few words” is not a figure of speech—we have very little information about A. Dneprov and his life.

Anatoly Petrovich Mickevich (A. Dneprov is his pseudonym) was born in 1919 in Dnepropetrovsk. In 1941 he graduated from Moscow State University Faculty of Physics and went to war. From 1943 on, he worked in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Red Army. He received the Order of the Patriotic War Second Class for his participation in disarming units and formations of the Kwantung Army, the major Japanese army active in China during World War II. During the war, he also worked in Italy and Africa in the campaign against Rommel. A. Dneprov was the translator and assistant of Marshal Georgy Zhukov on 8 May 1945 when the German Instrument of Surrender was signed. He became PhD in physics in 1952. His military career ended in 1956. After it, he worked several years in a research institute and was a department head of the journal “Tech-youth”. The last years of his life were spent in the Institute of Economics and Foreign Relations. His literary career begun 1958 and continued until his death in 1975. His literary works were issued by different publishing houses in USSR. For the most part, he was interested in problems of science, and in his publications he tried to show that great scientific discoveries can be harmful to human civilization if they fall into the hands of bad or irresponsible people. A number of his books have been translated into English.

The story of how “The Game” reached the limelight of philosophical attention is also intriguing. It starts with the interview that was granted by A. L. Dobrokhotov – a famous Russian philosopher and culturologist – to V. V. Vasilyev and D. B. Volkov. During the conversation, different subjects were broached, and among them A. L. Dobrohotov referred to a fantastic story whose idea was very close to the concept of Searle’s “Chinese room”. It was a fascinating piece of news for the interviewers, but the main problem was with the name of the story’s author.

A. Dobrohotov tried as hard as he could, but he could not remember it. The wide thematic scope of the discussion also did not help to discover who wrote “The Game.” It is quite possible that this story would never have been correctly identified if not for the attentiveness and erudition of Egor Smirnov, who recognized A. Dneprov’s creation in Dobrohotov’s description and shared his discovery with V. V. Vasilyev. After this, this wonderful text was translated into English in order to make it available to a worldwide readership. Please enjoy it!

Also we’d like to say many thanks to A.Voronin for the story above and to Professor Howell and his wife Pamela for invaluable editing work.

The Game (translated by A.Rudenko)

According to Professor Zarubin, it was a “purely mathematical game.”

It was offered to all delegates of the Soviet Congress of Young Mathematicians willing to take part, and, to everyone’s amusement, all fourteen hundred members agreed. The venue was the big stage at Lenin Stadium.

“Let me warn you that the game is going to take three to four hours. So be patient. If somebody gives up, the game will be ruined!” said Ivan Klochko, a young logistics expert from Ukraine authorized by Zarubin to handle the arrangements, which looked quite weird.

“Remember your team number. Your number is 10. Each of your team mates should be assigned binary ordinals: 1st, 10th, 11th, etc.,” Ivan said to the leader representing the Russian Federation team.

Afterward he approached all delegations to give them their personal numbers and to explain the numeration procedure.

The arrangements lasted all Saturday, and the Sunday gathering was to commence at 9:00 am. I think that none of the participants will ever forget this marvelous event.
On the stroke of 9:00 am all of us were at the stadium. Professor Zarubin, his assistant, Semyon Danilovich Ryabov, and Ivan Klochko were onsite by then.
The green field was covered with orange lines forming squares and rectangles. Each figure had a small wooden block with a chalk-drawn number on its blue surface. We sat onto the grass in anticipation of the next step.

Professor Zarubin left, but soon after we heard his voice radioed all over the stadium:

“Team number 1011, yours is the rectangular section in the eastern part of the stadium. Follow the increasing order of your numbers to form lines standing within arm’s reach behind one. The figure you form should be seven people long and six people wide.”

“Team number 111, please move to the section beside the stands in the southern part. Also follow the increasing order of your numbers to form lines standing within arm’s reach behind one another. Team number…”

It took Zarubin fifteen minutes to give detailed layout instructions to all the teams. As soon as he called out the team number, a group of young experts jumped up and headed for the specified section.

“Can we sit?” somebody shouted out.

In a few seconds Zarubin’s joyful voice replied:

“Sure! As long as you retain the layout I specified.”

I was in a so-called special team. We had to sit between the sections and be “a liaison between the teams” as Klochko put it.

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.

Ivan Klochko stood at the left wing with a notebook and pencil in his hands. I could see him make notes whenever the corner player tilted toward him and said something.

In two hours all of us were fairly exhausted: some were sitting or even lying. Young people were starting to have some off-the-topic chats interrupted only for some moments whenever a number came requiring them to make some quick, and by then automatic, calculations, and to pass on the result.

By the third hour of the game I had processed at least seventy numbers.

“Is this ever going to end?” asked a student from Saratov University and let out a deep sigh. She was receiving numbers from me and passing them on leftward, rightward or to the front.

“You’re right. The game’s pretty dull,” I noted.

“Sunday’s lost …,” she grumbled.

It was very hot, and the girl kept turning her pretty red face to glance angrily at Zarubin, who stood at the northern stand looking at his notebook and giving numbers to our starting point – Albert Sagirov.

“One more hour to go,” I said glancing at my watch and out of heart. “Zero-zero-one-zero!”

“One-zero-zero-one,” the girl grunted to the guy on her right. “You know what? I can’t stand it.”

“But you can’t leave! Zero-zero-one-one!”

“One-one-one-zero! To hell with it! I’ll just leave quietly. I’m getting dizzy …”

Without a word she stood up and headed towards the western stand where the exit was.

“One-zero-one-zero,” I heard from behind.

“Who’s to get my number?” I wondered. I could do nothing but pass the number to the guy on that girl’s left.

Before the game was over, I had handled another five numbers. Some fifteen minutes later we heard Zarubin’s voice:

  “The game is over. You may leave.”

We stood up and stared at the central stand in bewilderment. Then everyone started complaining and their lifting hands in genuine dismay.

“What’s this all about? Foolish stuff! Some whisper-down-the-lane-style game! Who’s the winner? What’s the point of it all?”

As if knowing what the argument was about, Zarubin said joyfully:

“I’ll give out the results tomorrow at the University’s assembly hall.”

The next day, we filled the assembly hall to discuss the final and the most interesting issue of our congress – “Can mathematical machines think?” Previously, the delegates had had some contentious debates on this topic and had never reached any consensus.

“It’s like asking can you think or not!” huffed and puffed my roommate, Anton Golovin, “the cybernetics nut.” “How am I supposed to know that?

And do you know whether I have any thoughts? We’ve just politely agreed that all of us are able to think. Whereas if we take it objectively, the only thing evidencing a human’s ability to think is the way he handles logical and mathematical problems. And these can be solved by a machine as well!”

“A machine can do that only if you have it do so.”

“Nonsense! You can make a machine process tasks independently. For example, you can install a clock and program it to solve differential equations in the morning, write poems in the afternoon, and edit French novels in the evening!”

“That’s the point! You have to program it!”

“What about you? Aren’t you programmed? Think it over! Are you living without any program?

“I composed it myself.”

“First, I doubt that. Second, a large machine can also compose its own programs.”

“Hush!” came from around us.

The hall became silent. Professor Zarubin approached the top table and gave us a provocative smile. He placed his notebook before himself and said:

“I want to ask you two questions, my friends. And your answers are directly related to the final stage of our work.”

We were expecting the questions breathlessly.

“My first question is: Who knows what we did yesterday at the stadium?”

Hums shot through the hall. Some voices tried to guess “Attention check,” “Checking the reliability of binary codes,”, “Calling game…”

“Okay, I get it. You have no clue. So, here is my second question. If anyone here speaks Portuguese please raise your hand.”

That was totally unexpected!

After a moment’s silence all fourteen hundred people burst out laughing. Of course, none of us knew Portuguese. Some probably had English, German, or French skills, but not Portuguese!

Outcries and laughter filled the hall for quite a while. Zarubin laughed with us. Then he shook his notebook in the air and, when the hall was silent again, he read slowly:
“Os maiores resultados sao produzidos роr – pequenos mas continues esforcos”.

This is a sentence in Portuguese. I don’t think you can guess what it means. However, it was you who yesterday made a perfect Russian translation. Here it is: “The greatest goals are achieved through minor but continuous ekkedt.”

Surely, you’ve noticed that the last word makes no sense, meaning that someone left early or otherwise violated the rules. It should read ‘effort.’”
“The girl from Saratov!” – the thought flashed through my mind.

“No way!” someone exclaimed. “You can’t handle a mission unless you understand what you’re doing!”

“Aha! I was expecting this part,” said Zarubin. “We’re about to resolve the issue we’re dealing with today. To save you the trouble of guessing, I want to explain what the game actually was. In short, we can call it a Computing Machine game. Each one of you was either a memory cell, a total mechanism, a time-delay line, or a simple switch.”

As Professor Zarubin spoke, outcries, conversations, exclamations and shouts were rising in the hall, for we all suddenly realized what we had done at the stadium. Moments later Zarubin’s voice faded away behind fourteen hundred people talking excitedly. The professor stopped speaking and looked admiringly at the hundreds of young excited faces of mathematicians who did not need any further explanations.

“That’s brilliant!” someone exclaimed. “The experiment has proven the proponents of the thinking-machine concept wrong! They should be ashamed!”

The noise, outcries, and laughter were back. Zarubin raised his hand and the hall was silent again.

“Remember that part of Turing’s article in which he said that to find out whether machines are able to think, you have to become a machine. Experts in cybernetics believe that the only way to prove that machines can think is to turn yourself into a machine and examine your thinking process.

Hence, yesterday we spent four hours operating like a machine. Not a fictional one, but a serial, domestic machine named Ural. If we had more people, we could have worked as Strela, Large Electronic Computing Machine, or any other computing machine. I decided to try Ural and used you, my dear young friends, as elements to build it at the stadium. I prepared a program to translate Portuguese texts, did the encoding procedure, and placed it into the “memory unit” – the Georgian delegation. I gave the grammatical rules to our Ukrainian colleagues, and the Russian team was responsible for the dictionary.

Our machine handled the mission flawlessly, as the translation of the foreign sentence into Russian required absolutely no thinking. You definitely understand that such a living machine could solve any mathematical or logical problem just like state-of-the-art electronic computing machines. However, that would require much more time. And now let us try to answer one of the most critical questions of cybernetics: Can machines think?”

“No!” everyone roared.

“I object!” yelled our “cybernetics nut,” Anton Golovin. “During the game we acted like individual switches or neurons. And nobody ever said that every single neuron has its own thoughts. A thought is the joint product of numerous neurons!”

“Okay,” the Professor agreed. “Then we have to assume that during the game the air was stuffed with some ‘machine superthoughts’ unknown to and inconceivable by the machine’s thinking elements! Something like Hegel’s noûs, right?”

Golovin stopped short and sat down.

“If you, being structural elements of some logical pattern, had no idea of what you were doing, then can we really argue about the ‘thoughts’ of electronic devices made of different parts which are deemed incapable of any thinking even by the most fervent followers of the electronic-brain concept? You know all these parts: radio tubes, semiconductors, magnetic matrixes, etc. I think our game gave us the right answer to the question ‘Can machines think?’ We’ve proven that even the most perfect simulation of machine thinking is not the thinking process itself, which is a higher form of motion of living matter. And this is where I can declare the Congress adjourned.”

Professor Zarubin’s departure was marked by our long-lasting acclaim.

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