Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Quote of the Week

We had two solid contenders for this week's Quote of the Week crown, one of whom is a familiar face around these parts. In an epic rant about the ludicrous trillion-dollar platinum coin proposal that inexplicably gained traction last week before quickly being shot down (but not before turning our political and economic discourse into a Simpsons-esque farce), Stephen Colbert delivered a classic line about the recently re-elected President Obama, saying, "we should have known a coin was Obama's solution to everything—it was right there in his slogan... CHANGE!"

The whole clip is worth a watch, if only because Colbert does an excellent job of breaking down the whole it's-legal-because-it's-not-technically-illegal basis upon which the entire proposal relied, which is interestingly pretty much the same basis upon which Obamacare was upheld by the Supreme Court this summer. Nevertheless, this week's Quote of the Week is going to come from a totally different source, although also technically a familiar "face" around here.

A couple of years ago, an IBM supercomputer named Watson made waves when he (it?) beat two great Jeopardy! champions in an exhibition match, in the process demonstrating the potential for computing in the next generation. The IBM team has continued to fiddle with Watson, hoping to refine the computer's ability to comprehend human language (and to minimize some of the memorable gaffes that he made on the show). Part of that tinkering process involved incorporating slang into Watson's vocabulary, which... well, let's just let Fortune's Michael Lev-Ram tell the rest of the story.


"[IBM research scientist Eric] Brown attempted to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary. The popular website contains definitions for terms ranging from Internet abbreviations like OMG, short for "Oh, my God," to slang such as "hot mess." But Watson couldn't distinguish between polite language and profanity—which the Urban Dictionary is full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word "bullshit" in an answer to a researcher's query. Ultimately, Brown's 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory. But the trial proves just how thorny it will be to get artificial intelligence to communicate naturally."
                                                - Michael Lev-Ram, Fortune

Too funny. I can't get the concept of a foul-mouthed robot spewing insults at everyone out of my head. In fact, it makes me want to build a Watson for myself and program him only with things he picked up from Urban Dictionary. But I digress.

I still think that the potential for artificial intelligence is incredibly high, but this speaks volumes about how weird and nuanced human thought and communication can be, and therefore how difficult it can be to replicate. Given how frequently public figures put their feet in their mouths with episodes of careless and thoughtless speech, I can only imagine how bad things might be for a computer that hasn't been programmed to understand the subtleties of (and contradictions in) modern language.


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