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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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David Fried

"At its core, language is a means of cooperation between people. It works by constructing shared perceptions through joint attention. More generally, it is a shared system that permits cooperative interactions between people."

Exactly right. And at the risk of mere anecdotage, I remember my son, at just three years of age, "helping" to clean up the fallen leaves in the yard. For 45 minutes he maintained, with amazing mimetic success, the engaged tone of a friendly, cooperative adult engaged in a common task. "OK, Dad, I'm moving the garbage can over here. . . That'll make it easier!" The humor, of course, lay in the fact that in that entire time he never succeeded in putting a single leaf in the can that I could see. What fascinated me was that mastery of the linguistic tools that make joint activity possible had been achieved so early, so completely, and so far in advance of the motor and even the attentional skills actually needed for the task. That moment crystallized for me the insight you are expressing here.

Chris Crawford

Computer scientists have, of course, been working on the problem of language for more than 50 years. Having expended lots of academic cannon fodder on the problem, they have come to the conclusion that, in general, it can't be done. They have their own terminology to describe the problem in ways that non-computer scientists have difficulty understanding, but the basic idea is that the computer must "know" about everything that language references. (Their term is "knowledge domains".) Since natural language refers to, well, the entire universe, any computer program to understand language must first know everything about the universe: that balls bounce, syrup bottles get sticky, Napoleon lost at Waterloo, and teenagers are rash, among other things. Equipping a computer with that much knowledge is not just technically impossible, it's conceptually impossible. Could you express all the knowledge you possess in some rigorous, structured format? This was the idea behind the Cyc project, which after 26 years is STILL being worked on -- and quite a few people are now skeptical that it will ever yield truly usable results.

Since we haven't a clear idea of how to equip computers with complete knowledge of the universe that we perceive, we cannot expect to see computers doing much with language. They can do some impressive syntactical calculations, and when you can narrowly confine the subject matter to something that the computer can know about, then you can conceivably get some useful language activity out of a computer.

Where this gets interesting is the situation in which we have a narrowly-defined universe coupled to a narrowly-defined language. Before you scoff at the idea of a narrowly-defined universe, let me remind you that every game creates its own narrowly-defined universe. Accordingly, we might see some interesting results coming out of the games field -- but don't hold your breath. The games people themselves don't comprehend any of this stuff. I've been working on it in the context of interactive storytelling, and I came up with a system I call "Deikto" that allows the creation of a narrow-defined universe/language as a single act of creation. But it's way too hard for most people to use.

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