Belmont Club

Open Thread Second Debate

Ariana Huffington thinks that debates are obsolete because they are not a fair test of how Presidents really handle issues.

When is a sitting president ever going to be faced with a situation in which he’s going to need to make an important decision without availing himself of any outside information? Information is good — indeed, very few crises in our history have come about because a president wanted to consider too much outside information.

Why not let the President bring his teleprompter, Blackberry, Iphone and Air Force One? After all he would have them in an actual decision making situation. Here’s one format Ariana likes. It is the modern version of the Chinese Room.

Bashir doesn’t get specific, but Friedersdorf does. He calls for “text-based debates,” in which opposing candidates would be sat in different rooms, given computers and engage in something like an IM chat. “I think text would easily prove more substantive than broadcast,” he writes. “There’d be a nice transcript at the end that voters could consult. The political press wouldn’t waste time talking about body language, facial expressions, dress, or other nonsense that is covered as if it’s important because it’s covered as if it’s important.”

John Searle’s famous AI scenario, the Chinese Room experiment recreates Friedersdorf’s experiment almost exactly. “Searle’s thought experiment begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese.”

Searle then supposes that he is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. Searle could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program’s instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. As the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it is fair, says Searle, to deduce that he would be able to do so as well, simply by running the program manually.

Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between the role the computer plays in the first case and the role he plays in the latter. Each is simply following a program, step-by-step, which simulates intelligent behavior. And yet, Searle points out, “I don’t speak a word of Chinese.” Since he does not understand Chinese, Searle argues, we must infer that the computer does not understand Chinese either.

In the Friedersdorf case, we are asked to believe that because there is something which comes out of the sealed room that pretends to IM like a President then it is in fact a President. Huffington is willing to consider it a fair test. Maybe it is.

But maybe debate is a throwback to that old institution, trial by combat, where “God” is called upon to settle things. In that situation each of the opponents get on their respective steeds and whack at each other with flails, maces and battle-axes. Man to man. Mano a mano.

Maybe the whole reason for the debate is that voters want to see the opponents go at it grunting and flinching in the ring with as few props and appliances as possible. They want to see the man, not the machine. As it is, people are complaining that Obama has brought his own moderator.

The moment, when according to Obama’s supporters, the President won the second debate. Crowley corrects Romney and tells him that Obama considered Benghazi an act of terror from the very beginning. “D Wasserman Schultz ‏@DWStweets Libya question left #RomneyExposed as a candidate who is not in command of the facts—or foreign policy.”

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