Which level of language does a computer have to master, so that one has to concede it actually “understands” the language and is intelligent? That’s one of the basic questions addressed by the Eliza program. (Try it out here, if you don’t know it.)

Now Eliza, or all the 1 million other clones of it, uses a small dictionary of key words and scans the text for these. So when you say “I don’t get along with my wife.” it might reply “Tell me more about your family.” as it recognizes the key word “wife”.

Taxi drivers in Beijing, at least the better ones, have the same level of proficiency in English as these programs do.

On my last visit to the People’s Republic I was lucky enough to have such a specimen, who was eager to practice, as a driver. He would try out all of his memorized phrases on me: “Where do you want to go?” “Do you want to see the Bird’s Nest?” (= the big Olympic stadium) “Do you want to see the Forbidden City?” “How long are you staying in Beijing?”

All of these were uttered with the same level of clarity as a good computer generated voice and for about 2 minutes I had the honest impression that he actually spoke English. But when you asked even simple questions such as “Where did you learn English?” or “Did you learn English in school?”, his only reply was a short “Sorry.”

I later found out that all taxi drivers in Beijing had to memorize certain names and phrases for the Olympic Games.