Language Arts

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A replacement for the Turing test has been proposed. The original test, in which a computer program tries to fool a human judge into thinking it’s human during a five-minute text-only conversation, has been criticized because the central task of devising a false identity is not part of intelligence, and because some conversations may require relatively little intelligent reasoning.

The new test would be based on so-called Winograd schemas, devised by Stanford computer scientist Terry Winograd in 1972. Here’s the classic example:

The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.

If the word feared is used, to whom does they refer, the councilmen or the demonstrators? What if we change feared to advocated? You know the answers to these questions because you have a practical understanding of anxious councilmen. Computers find the task more difficult because it requires not only natural language processing and commonsense reasoning but a working knowledge of the real world.

“Our WS [Winograd schemas] challenge does not allow a subject to hide behind a smokescreen of verbal tricks, playfulness, or canned responses,” wrote University of Toronto computer scientist Hector Levesque in proposing the contest in 2014. “Assuming a subject is willing to take a WS test at all, much will be learned quite unambiguously about the subject in a few minutes.”

In July 2014 Nuance Communications announced that it will sponsor an annual Winograd Schema Challenge, with a prize of $25,000 for the computer that best matches human performance. The first competition will be held at the 2016 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, July 9-15 in New York City.

Here’s another possibility: Two Dartmouth professors have proposed a Turing Test in Creative Arts, in which “we ask if machines are capable of generating sonnets, short stories, or dance music that is indistinguishable from human-generated works, though perhaps not yet so advanced as Shakespeare, O. Henry or Daft Punk.” The results of that competition will be announced May 18 at Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Exposition.

(Thanks, Kristján and Sharon.)

In a Word

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syntomy
n. brevity, conciseness

First published in January 1981, NASA Reference Publication 1059, “Space Transportation System and Associated Payloads: Glossary, Acronyms, and Abbreviations,” is a list of “compressed identifiers of systems or structures felt too long and cumbersome to be christened in the normal fashion.”

Among the entries are BX, for box, FLG, for flag, and FLP, for flap.

In Words (1983), Paul Dickson writes, “One is hard-pressed to think of a situation in which an abbreviation that saves only one letter actually saves time and causes less confusion.”

In Other Words

The crews of American heavy bombers now stationed in the British Isles have fraternized, of course, with the personnel of R.A.F. It was a case of love at first sight — but both sides experienced a little difficulty at first in savvying each other’s lingo. One American aviator, for instance, cited this example of the R.A.F.’s version of the King’s English:

‘Three ropey types, all sprogs, pranged a cheeseye on bumps and circuits. One bought it; the other two sent for a burton. The station-master took a dim view and tore them off a strip. They’d taken along shagbat wofficer, who was browned off. The queen bee was hopping mad.’

It took some time for the American to translate this cryptic report. Roughly, this is what it meant:

‘Three unpopular individuals, all brand new pilot officers, crashed a workout airplane while practicing circuits and landings. One was killed; the other two were reprimanded severely. The station commander disapproved strongly and roundly berated them. They had taken along with them a somewhat plain WAAF officer, who was bored. The station’s WAAF commander was very angry.’

Queen’s University Journal, Sept. 29, 1944

The Vague Specific

In Collier’s in 1949, Richard B. Gehman identified a troubling feature of American language — the tendency to refer to specific things vaguely.

“Say, what about all those things in the front room?” his wife had asked him, supposing that he knew what she meant. “I didn’t,” Gehman wrote. “For all I knew, ‘those things’ could have been the furniture, books, rugs, magazines, lamps, or the remnants of a sandwich I’d been eating.”

Some more examples:

  • “Here,” my wife said, “you can take these. … Put them with those things behind the others.”
  • “Remember the girl from the place with the stuff? Well, she’s here.”
  • “The men came today.” (Gehman tried asking, “What did you tell them?”, but she only answered, “I told them to go ahead.”)
  • “Do you remember that time we were at the shore, and it rained?”
  • “When was it that we had the Coes over?”
  • “The woman’s here for the money.”
  • “What was the name of that couple we met the time we went to the Zeamers’?”
  • “What’s the name of that fellow who drives the truck?”

A neighbor appeared at Gehman’s door one day and asked his help in repairing a washing machine — his wife had said that the thing on its side was acting funny. “He sighed, and asked if I had anything to drink in the house.”

“A Victim of Irregularity”

Though no great catch, this man was caught,
And neighbors tell, I’m told,
That oft, with scratch, his face was scraught,
Till fearful yells he yold.

In sink of sadness almost sunk,
To quit all strife he strove —
And after he a think had thunk,
A happier life he love.

To steal a kiss, no more he stole;
To make a break, he broke;
To remedy the deal he’d dole,
A secret sneak he snoke.

Fate’s dice with crafty shake he shook;
As gamblers feel he felt;
But ere the final stake he stook
A bitter squeal he squelt.

Of earlier days, I think, he thought,
Ere Hymen’s bonds had bound —
Before his links were firmly lought —
When he by blond was blound.

A stroke for liberty he struck;
For in a fly he flew —
But though full many a joke he juck,
A secret cry he crew.

Then stings of conscience no more stung,
And so in peace he slept;
For, on the wings of Morpheus brung,
In Paradise he pept.

— George B. Moregood, Puck, Oct. 2, 1912

Ruly English

In 1957, the U.S. Patent Office wanted to design a computer that could track down earlier references to an idea submitted by an inventor. This is difficult, because patents are described in ordinary English, which uses many ambiguous and imprecise terms. The word glass, for instance, refers to a material, but also to any number of things made of that material, and even to objects that have nothing to do with glass, such as plastic eyeglasses and drinking glasses.

To solve this problem, engineer-lawyer Simon M. Newman planned a synthetic language called Ruly English that gave one and only one meaning to each word. In ordinary English the preposition through has at least 13 meanings; Newman proposed replacing each of them with a new Ruly term with a single meaning. The Ruly word howby, for example, means “mode of proximate cause.” It might replace the unruly terms by(take by force) or with (to kill with kindness) or through (to cure through surgery), but it always has the same basic sense.

Newman had to coin other terms to take account of differing points of view. A watch spring and a bridge girder are both flexible to some degree, but using the word flexible to describe both would leave a computer at a loss as to how they compare. Newman coined the Ruly word resilrig to cover the whole scale, from extreme flexibility to extreme rigidity, adding prefixes such as sli (slightly) and sub (substantially). So in Ruly English a bridge girder would be sliresilrig and a watch spring subresilrig. A computer that knew these terms would not be confused into thinking that a thin bridge girder was more flexible than a rigid watch spring.

“Humans are not expected to read or speak Ruly English,” noted Time in 1958. “To them, unruly English will always be more ruly.”

(Newman describes his plan briefly here. I don’t know how far he got.)