“Orcas can imitate human speech”

Really, I like to think that Orcas already are fluent in human speech, and have just been not speaking to us, realizing that once they opened that door there would be no closing it.

The study was covered in the guardian, and like most studies, begins with the assumptions that the orca knows nothing and must be taught by the human.

The history of modern human science assumes that humans are the smarter species in what seems like all cases.  I’m going to prefer the creepy AMY orca calls is the orca finally tired of humansplaining.



Does this description:

Humanoid form and flexibility – SecondHands will feature an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, a bendable and extendable torso, and a wheeled mobile platform.

Match this image:

It is the wheeled mobile platform. To me, this robot should not have legs, it should look more like the maid from The Jetsons.

Reading comprehension and correct answers

Reading the Bloomberg article on nlp comprehension.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. put its deep neural network model through its paces last week, asking the AI to provide exact answers to more than 100,000 questions comprising a quiz that’s considered one of the world’s most authoritative machine-reading gauges. The model developed by Alibaba’s Institute of Data Science of Technologies scored 82.44, edging past the 82.304 that rival humans achieved.

What is notable to me is that in this instance, these questions can only have one answer, to be correct.

The quiz itself is based on wikipedia articles. Remember when you would never let your students use wikipedia as a source?

As the Bloomberg article notes, NLP ‘mimics’ human comprehension.  The underlying belief is that the machines can answer objective questions.

“That means objective questions such as ‘what causes rain’ can now be answered with high accuracy by machines,” Luo Si, chief scientist for natural language processing at the Alibaba institute, said in a statement.

Functionality and thus comprehension and correctness is based on a binary model of knowledge, and is using wikipedia for the source of correct. Much about that sentence is complicated, from my perspective. The binary model of correctness allows for no nuance, and is based on those who have the power to control the narrative. No alternate views, no other models.

It reminds me of taking standardized tests, when none of the answers seemed exactly correct, and I spent my test taking time trying to imagine which one the test makers believed to be correct. I was forced to fit into the culture of the creators of the exam. Extending this out to what it means that machines ‘know’ and allowing them to provide authoritative answers seems reductive, dangerous, and seems to be moving ahead apace.


Is the future oral?

As we sit here this morning, I am reading of Berber languages, and W is reading of Sumer and Akkadian.

Berber, and the Tamasheq variant that particularly interests me, has had a long life as an oral language.  Sumerian is one of the first known written languages, and while there is a sample of someone reading Gilgamesh in Akkadian, it was a language that was dead long ago, and we modern humans really do not know what it sounds like. The recreation, however, is beautiful.

Many of the languages which die off are oral languages, the last speakers die, and thus the language goes with it. This has long been a concern of linguists, and the popular press doesn’t seem to make it through a year without a piece about it as well.

The rise of social media based on images, the use of video, and the use of emoji are all interesting language shifts at play now. It is difficult to make any long ranging assumptions, but that makes it no less interesting than to watch younger demographics (in particular) prefer to engage with English in its oral form. Not just the in-person conversations that have always existed (and it may be argued that the in-person is diminishing) but the endless youtube videos and channels with millions of followers.  The language variations spoken by many of these English speakers are certainly not the written language that we find in standard texts, lexically and grammatically.  The use of emoji shifts English to a pictographic language, rather than a symbol corresponding to a sound, it corresponds to a concept or an idea.

There are thus, interesting ideas about the future of the visual language, both photographic and iconic/ideographic, which I am not going to touch at this time.

What I wonder however, if there will be an orality of language that is prioritized in the future, that shifts the current power and status dynamic in which unwritten languages are a lesser language, an archaic form from a culture which has ‘failed to develop’ despite the many ways in which the more oral languages do have advantages in a cultural context.

Imagining a world in which oral English is how stories are shared, that this access to the storytellers is required, beyond books, to belong, to understand, is a world we have, perhaps, never lived in, not in the modern English that we speak now. It would have been centuries since English was predominately oral, and it was an earlier version of English. Back to the time of the bards, except this time around, our bards will be digital.



Is being bilingual only about the lexicon?

To start, each constructs bilingual dictionaries without the aid of a human teacher telling them when their guesses are right. That’s possible because languages have strong similarities in the ways words cluster around one another. The words for table and chair, for example, are frequently used together in all languages.

So how does the computer know that table and chair are often used together? What about cultures that do not have chairs, but do have tables?  How is the computer mapping co-occurances that have a significant variation by culture, or simply do not exist?

This article uses Chinese and Arabic as the example languages for mapping. The underlying cultural principles are rather different, for community, behaviors, constructs, and as these are mapping IN language, does one become more like the other? Does the machine create an Arabic with Chinese sentiments? [The papers use French and English, which are much more similar, culturally and linguistically.]

Treating language like math is not going to turn out well. Though I haven’t yet read the papers that support these assumptions.

Back to my regularly repeated statement: machine translation and language that does not address the significant cultural components of language, as communication, as culture, as transfer mode of ideology, will, in the end, create a different or new culture, and now would be a very good time to be paying more attention to this.




An AI is an AI is an AI…or not.

Every morning, of late, when I read the news, there is a slew of headlines of what AI has done for us lately.

Just this morning, I read:

Robert Wickham of Salesforce is the source of the last statement, that AI will be the new electricity, once we are done oohing and ahhing. Or being afraid that we will all lose our jobs.

AI, however, is not like electricity. It is not so straight forward. While it may, eventually, be ubiquitous and unconsidered, so far we cannot provide a single and clear definition for what it is, and thus these reductive metaphors create greater confusion than clarity.

In each article ‘AI’ describes something different. Deep learning, neural networks, robotics, hardware, a combination, etc. Even within deep learning or neural networks, the meanings can be different, as can the nuts and bolts. Most media and humans use ‘AI’ as shorthand for whatever suits their context. AI, without an agreed upon definition, but the lack of clarity, differentiation, and understanding does make it very difficult to discuss in a nuanced manner.

There is code, there is data, there is an interface–for inputs and outputs, and all of these are (likely) different in each instantiation.  Most of the guts are proprietary, in the combination of code and data and training. So we don’t necessarily know what makes up the artificial intelligence.

Even code, as shorthand to a layperson, as the stuff that makes computers do what they do, is a broad and differentiated category. In this case, like language, it is used for a particular purpose, so this reduction is perhaps not as dangerous. We’ve never argued that code is going to take over the world, or that rogue code is creating disasters.  As compared to algorithms, a few years ago, and AI, now.

So much of this lumping is a problem? We lump things, such as humans or cats, into categories based on like attributes, but we do have some ways to differentiate them. These may not be useful categories, nationality, breed, color, behavior, gender.  (Even these are pretty fraught of late, so perhaps our categorization schemes for mammals needs some readdressing.)  On the other side, we could consider cancer, an incredibly reductive title for very a broad range of…well of what? Tumor types? Mechanisms? Genetic predispositions? There are discussions, given recent research, as to whether cancer should be a noun, perhaps it is better served as a verb. Our bodies cancer, I am cancering, to show the current activity of internal cellular misbehavior.

What if we consider of this  on the intelligence side, how do we speak of intelligence, artificial or otherwise? For intelligence, like consciousness, in humans, we do not have clear explanations for what it is or how it works. So not perhaps the simplest domain to borrow language from, and apply it to machines.  Neural networks is one aspect, modeled on human brains, but it is limited to the structural pathways, a descriptor of how information travels and is stored.

The choice to use AI to represent such a broad range of concepts, behaviors, and functions concerns me. Even in the set of headlines above, it is difficult to know what is being talked about, from a continuum of visible outputs to robots who speak.  If we cannot be more clear about what we are discussing it is incredibly complicated to make clear decisions, about functions, about inputs, about outputs, data, biases, ethics, and all the things which have broad impacts on society.

I haven’t seen clear work on how we should use this language, and though I worked with IBM Watson for a while on exactly this concern, I can’t say I have a strong recommendation for how we categorize not just what we have now, but, as importantly, what is being built and what will exist in the future. The near future.

I’ll work on this later, as in soon, ways in which to talk about these parts in a public context that are clearer, and allow for growth of creations into a systems model.  Check back!


Grammar checking software, language change, and precursors to the future

Almost 20 years ago I wrote my master’s thesis on ‘Grammar Checking Software as a Tool of Language Change’ or some such title. I’ve since lost track of the paper, it was, in that day, on paper.

I was studing at Georgetown University, and my work focused on language and power, from a sociolinguistic and cultural perspective. I had been using assorted early 90s log files I had collected, from IRC and a forum used at UCSC when I was an undergrad, and assessing markers of power in language in the online environment, watching the evolution of language change, and seeing the ways in which one positioned oneself, via language. One of the areas that particularly interested me, which I delved further into, is how non-native speakers of English marked authority online in an anonymous environment and using a language that was rapidly evolving, often different, in each community.

This work led to me to the early grammar and spelling checkers, and my often curiousity as to why they were so not grammatical. I decided to analyse the grammaticality of the current crop of tools against Fowler’s Modern English Usage. For those non-grammar nerds, Fowler’s is an early 20th century grammar text which is/was the go-to for proper English. As a comparator it had its issues, but those I worked around and wrote about. As I worked through analyzing different software programs, I eventually opted to use on Microsoft Word, due to the enormity of my task.

The outcome of this was that even at its most stringent, the grammar checker was no where near Fowler’s. And at its more casual levels — at the time it had three — the English it was recommending was so odd and so lax that the usage of the tool, in my estimation, would ‘teach’ a user a very different English than one would learn at school.

There was no way this was not purposeful, which led me to many questions, most of which remained unanswered, as MS did not wish to speak to me about them.  At the most basic, I was curious who wrote the program because I felt that no linguist would have built a grammatically incorrect system.  This led me to the hypothesis that the linguists built the systems and the marketers freaked out at all the wavy green and red lines and insisted it have fewer. I would love to have heard more of the inside of this, and if you happened to work on this, I’d love to hear from you.

This has really interesting ramifications for both Americans and non-native English speakers. In general, and in different ways, each can use a boost in grammar, and if you have an authoritative tool telling you that no, you cannot use ‘which’ refering to a cat, it must be ‘that’ then this is a possible shift.  It refuses the use of the passive voice, and other constructs it deemed overly complex. One cannot use a run on sentence nor a fragment.  It flattened, significantly, the ability to be creative in language.

We could say that one could turn this off, or that it could be ignored, but in the course of doing the research, I did eventually become bothered by all the wavy lines and want to change words to adhere to what I called Microsoft English.  Because it was, in fact, a significantly different and evolved English.  One that was being rapidly disseminated by what was becoming the most widely used word processor.

Whether or not Microsoft was attempting to create a new English, or was aware of the possible cultural ramifications, and power structures, that they were creating and/or re-inforcing, changes were happening.

And this was in one language. Years later I went back and re-ran some of my assessments in French, out of curiousity for the formality/informality and what it would recommend, and even in a language which has an Academie to control the language, there were shifts away from the rulings. So perhaps in most languages we see changes due to the judgments of software, and then these likely flow into society, because we do learn from software.

I doubt most people have considered this, that the language promoted by their grammar checking software is ‘wrong’ or at the very least, not a standard, until they created a standard.  I am not writing this, nor did I at the time, to be a stickler for Fowler’s or old grammar rules, but to surface the awareness that changes in the systems’ use of language flow outward into spoken language, and that they often have significant ramifications in how we can think about things. If your software systematically attempts to remove the use of animate pronouns for animals, plants and objects, it becomes of judgment of the humanity of any thing other than a human.   These are the things invisible to most people, yet significant in the ways in which we exist in our worlds.

In the same vein, I still look at the ways in which software is an output into our language, not just how language changes within power and control structures, but also the adoption of words, and the modification of our grammar, to make it easier to interact with the machines. More on this last bit later.



Temporal translation

I collect old dictionaries, in many languages, translations and otherwise. They are full of rich cultural information, new words, pathways, changed meanings, and I enjoy reading them for the glimpses of other worlds.

Often they contain words that I have to look up in other dictionaries, such as my copy of the first Hebrew-English translation dictionary released in Israel. It has so many words about the desert, about the plants, water, formations, growing, that I had to look a signficant number of them up in English, as I had never heard them.  A more modern Hebrew-French translation dictionary I have does not include nearly as many words of this sort.

I can build these models in my mind, in bits and pieces. But what would it be like to build them in the machine, to provide a rich view into different time periods by pouring in time-specific language data?

What if the machine can translate me to 1700s English? What if the machine translated from time periods, different Englishes, or Frenches? What about dialects?

I don’t know where phonology data would come from. What if I want to translate to Beowulf? How does the machine learn to pronounce the language properly?

I can imagine an amazing visualization, a time line, that I can drag into the past, to hear the sounds. Except it would need regional variation as well.

In the tradtion of vac, in which sound matters, the sound and the meaning intricately entwined, what histories can we learn by having the ability to translate to other places in time, not just other languages?

Do men dream of electric families?

In two recent articles I’ve read, men have created robots have modeled after female family members.

Martine Rothblatt, who created BINA48 in the image of his wife, Bina Aspen Rothblatt, and Hiroshi Ishiguro, who created his in the image of his (then) five-year old daughter.



  • https://futurism.com/the-most-life-life-robots-ever-created/
  • https://www.wired.com/2017/10/hiroshi-ishiguro-when-robots-act-just-like-humans/