I once met a physicists who held the strong AI position. I was 16, hadn't encountered this position before, and it appeared utterly absurd to me. Even so I'm no longer convinced that this position is utterly absurd, I still don't understand why everybody tries to disprove John Searle. My feeling is that the setup of John Searle's thought experiment can be usefully translated into the context of modern computers:
A modern computer offers a certain amount of memory, more precisely a hierarchy of memory with increasing size but decreasing access speed. It also offers a certain processing power, more precisely a cluster of parallel processing units with increasing number but decreasing interconnection speed. This basic architecture is normally agnostic of the programs and input data that will be used to generate useful results with the resources provided by this computer.
In Searle's Chinese room thought experiment, John is assumed to take the role of this computer, and provide the memory and processing power for the computation. Actually, he is only assumed to provide the fastest memory, while the really huge but slow memory is external to John in the form of paper and pencil and the "magic" book. But even if John would take the role of the "entire" tape of a Turing machine, why should we expect him (or the tape) to understand the problem instance the Turing machine is currently working on? Well, one reason is that for a universal Turing machine, the program itself was also written on the tape, so the tape had access to all the relevant information over time (except the meaning and interpretation of its final output, but I doubt that this is important here).
My question is, Where does this instruction book come from? We're all aware that humans write the code that drives a computer, or writes code that writes more code to drive a computer (ie a compiler) etc.
In the above translation into the context of modern computers, the instruction book is part of the input. This might be an important point, because superficially it looks like the only input comes from Mai, who submits the questions in Chinese.
So where does the input come from? My guess is that the input comes from the current and past environment. However, we can't really look far enough into the past to learn where the "initial seed" came from. And in addition, we have the theory of evolution, which suggests that the "initial seed" might have been less important than it seems. Which brings me to another position that appeared utterly absurd to me when I first encountered it. Somebody suggested to me that this world might have been created by aliens. I found this ridiculous, because it begs the questions who created the aliens in the first place. However, after I watched a clip where Richard Dawkins seriously considered that possibility, I have to admit that it might indeed be a consistent position.
Even if it is not directly related to the question, what is my own guess how understanding and meaning can arise during complicated computations? It might be related to the structure of space and time, where communication of information between different points is necessary during a computation (because the amount of information stored near any given point is finite) and takes a certain finite amount of time. The consequence is that compressed messages with more or less clear meaning in the context of the computation are exchanged and understood (and sometimes remembered for later reference) during the course of a computation. (And because the computation which our universe with its space and time structure seems to execute is unlikely to end anytime soon, there is no need to worry about the meaning and interpretation of its final output.)