A.I. it ain’t (A Confession of Snobbery)

Siri (and now with iOS7, Chaz) are about the closest thing to commercially available Artificial Intelligence that’s out there. I still wouldn’t trust them with my French homework.

Until we have full-on protocol droids like Threepio, I don’t want to hear about your translation program, your grammar program, your word-spinner or your salad-spinner.

I’ve already mentioned that I speak a couple of languages. I have a graduate certification in translation in one of them. I understand the process of translation.  There is no way to complete a computer program robust enough to truly replace a human being when it comes to language. Not even the Webster supercomputer.

If you trust your machine translation completely, then give it a sentence to mangle.  In this case, I’m going to use:

What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture evaporators

Plug your sentence into translate, copy and paste whatever language you choose and switch it to a third language. Repeat this five or six times. Then, translate it back to English.    For this example, I’m going to go English -> Czech -> Welsh -> Spanish -> Bengali -> English

Do you really need the moisture evaporator is a robot that understands the binary language.

This example is actually not as bad as the ones I normally see. Yes, the sentence is skewed with an unnecessary interrogative, but at least all of the vocabulary bits are still there.  I’m not horrified by this. I’d be horrified if someone tried to send me a business email that was written this way, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen.

Here’s the deal:

Living language can never be defined clearly enough for a computer to understand it.  There are too many changes in word meanings, syntax and terminology for the most up to date program to take into account.  Not only that, but there are localized differences in usage and differences in meaning between professions, situations and milieus.  (A lawyer asking for your case briefs is not wondering whether you wear boxers or briefs.)

Language is contextual. It’s fluid. Even grammar can give way to style.

My day job consists of translating what Google translates as user intent for their queries into what answers we have on our website. It’s all about making the fluid and contextual more clear to the robots.  Even then, there are massive breakdowns in communication.

As computers are morphed and refined into syntax and context engines (Google and Siri are both on this path), I am still cynical.  And a snob.

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