Wednesday, February 22, 2006

smart computers

My amusement stems from the fact that both articles address essentially the same concept, which is getting a computer to understand written language, but they have (I assume) never met. Certainly their concepts have not intermingled.

It seems to me that for a computer to "read" and understand, it needs that type of contextual grasp that comes from a lot of experience reading progressively more complex material, filled with metaphor and cultural reference. Most of us start with things like "See Spot run." and build from there, learning about what language means based on what we experience in life and what we see other writing employing.

Would you seriously expect to hand a book like Moby Dick to a 2nd grader and have them read and understand it? Of course not. You know that even if they can read, they cannot likely understand all of the complexities contained therein. Certainly they'd miss many cultural references.

(Actually, I missed almost all the cultural references, too, and I was in 10th grade or I hated the damned book...but that's beside the point.)

The second article's approach seems much more sophisticated, because even though it's still going for "instant understanding", it at least involves a period of learning during which a context system is built up. The likely meaning of words comes from the software's "experience" of what other words it is surrounded by. This is, in a sense, the software tirelessly reading all that material to learn something about language. That is, I would posit, the very basic roots of understanding starting to take hold.

If you have children, you know that when you read to them, they ask you questions, many of them with seemingly obvious answers. We answer them, again and again, gently remembering that with time, they will know these things without asking.

Why, then, are we so abusive to our machines?