Friday, April 22, 2016

Chatbots, AI, and Awaiting the Resurrection of Microsoft's Tay

Almost two years ago we dedicated a post to Eugene Goostman, a chatbot that had passed the Turing Test. At the time, we noted that the way the test was conducted seemed a little off and skewed. Nevertheless, we certainly thought that Eugene Goostman's achievements were worth celebrating.

This eagle was not pleased with Tay's behaviour.
Nearly a month ago on 23 March, Microsoft had a day from hell due to the complete debacle involving Tay, their new AI chatbot that took to Twitter and survived only 16 hours. In less than a day, users of the platform managed to corrupt the once innocent machine to a point where her tweets were so inflammatory that Microsoft had to close the AI's Twitter account.

Obviously, the Tay's "achievements" are a bit harder to celebrate than Eugene Goostman's. That said, while Microsoft's AI was spouting all sorts of racist and sexist messages, it was Twitter users who taught and raised it.

However, not all Twitter users are responsible for Tay's behaviour. In fact, Microsoft has used Chinese and Japanese chatbots for a couple of years now, and neither of them have caused any major problems. Maybe it's just that English speakers are worse when it comes to internet behaviour. Who knows?

Personally, I think that the internet should be given a second chance to try and raise its AI baby. However, I think Microsoft probably needs to ground Tay first and teach her a lesson. How did you react to Tay? Did you get over it? Would you like to see more experiments involving AI and chatbots on social media? Tell us your opinions in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Jiminy Jillikers and Semantic Satiation

There's a fantastic episode of The Simpsons called "Radioactive Man" in which a film adaptation of the superhero comic Radioactive Man is being made in the town of Springfield. In the episode, Bart's friend Milhouse is cast as Radioactive Man's sidekick, Fallout Boy.

The episode covers how Milhouse deals with being a movie star, and how it isn't as cool as he thought it would be. After being forced to record each scene multiple times and say Fallout Boy's catchphrase "jiminy jillikers" hundreds of times, Milhouse retorts, "making movies is so horribly repetitive; I've said 'jiminy jillikers!' so many times the words have lost all meaning!"

Try saying "flower" 100 times...
Of course, "jiminy jillikers" is a fictional expression and has no meaning. However, the phenomenon Milhouse is referring to is very real, and is called semantic satiation. This is when a word is repeated so many times that you no longer understand it to have any meaning, and instead just imagine the word as meaningless sounds, nonsense, gibberish, etc.

No matter what the word is, if you repeat it enough times, you'll eventually stop understanding it as a word and start hearing it as little more than the sounds (or phonemes) that constitute the word.

Normally when you repeat a word, your brain triggers the meaning of the word and you therefore understand it. However, when you quickly repeat a word again and again, you trigger a process known as reactive inhibition, which reduces the effectiveness of repeating the word, effectively rendering the process almost null and void. This means that rather than triggering the meaning of the word, you become almost immune to the process, and no meaning is triggered.

While this episode of The Simpsons plays on this idea by using a meaningless word as an example, it still helps explain the concept. You've surely experienced semantic satiation in your lifetime, and if you didn't know what it was before, now you do!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Why English Words Are So Inventable

If there's one thing I love more than anything about the English language, it's its flexibility. While English is a Germanic language, a lot of its vocabulary comes from Latin and French. Furthermore, thanks to its history, it has borrowed plenty of words from languages all over the word and never thought about giving them back.

Aside from all that, English can be pretty chill when it comes to its rules. Many English speakers like to bend the rules, and sometimes when they break them completely it doesn't even matter (as long as you're not in the company of prescriptivists).

There are as many possibilities for English words as there are
stars in the sky.
However, today I want to talk about lexical flexibility, the ways new English words are invented, and how you can invent them yourself. Of course, other languages invent new words all the time too, but it's the ways in which English does it that I'll be focusing on today.

Those in the UK might remember the story of bouncebackability, a word that described a sport team's capacity to recover from a losing position or setback. The word's first use was attributed to Iain Dowie, former manager of the Crystal Palace football team. While he is believed to have just invented the word on the spot, if you're familiar with the English language and some of our lexical tropes, you can immediately work out its meaning.

I love these kinds of examples of English being used to its full potential. That's why today I thought I'd look at a few of the ways you can invent your own English words and still be understood.

Suffixing and Prefixing

Adding a suffix to a preexisting word is one of the best ways to create new words. The suffix -ise (and -ize in American English) is used to mean "render" or "make". For example, veganise would mean to make something vegan. You can also add the -y suffix to indicate that something has a certain quality. Even if the adjective doesn't exist, you can always create one by adding -y to the end of any noun.

Prefixes can work the same way. You can add prefixes like anti-, un-, in-, and im- to create negatives, or pre- or post- to mean "before" and "after", for example.


You can also create new verbs from nouns by treating them like regular English verbs. The most famous recent example is probably the verb to google. It may seem commonplace now, but you should remember that this is a relatively recent idea that only gained traction in the last decade.


Creating a portmanteau is also another way English likes to create new words. For example, you can put together fare and forecasting to make farecasting, the act of predicting the best time to buy plane tickets.

Some of my favourite modern examples are those for male beauty products, procedures, and cosmetics. Words like guyliner (a combination of guy and eyeliner), manscara (from man and mascara), and manscaping (from man and landscaping, which refers to how a male can trim or remove his hair or improve aesthetics).


Of course, you can also just put two words together, like awesome and sauce to make awesomesauce. The possibilities are endless!

What are some of your favourite neologisms that have come about from these kind of behaviours? Tell us about them in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why Medical Interpreters Are So Awesome

After spending last week in a Spanish hospital, I was reminded of the importance (and awesomeness) of some of my favourite language professionals, interpreters, and above all, those who specialise in medical interpreting.

First, I should say that I am in awe of all interpreters in general. If you've ever tried any kind of interpreting, it won't take long before you realise that it's exhausting and very mentally demanding. These professionals work incredibly hard and have an enviable set of language skills.

However, rather than talk about all interpreters today (who I respect greatly), I'd like to focus on medical interpreters.

Seeing doctors and being in hospital can often be a distressing, worrying, or generally negative experience because you don't often spend time with medical professionals when you're feeling great.

Of course, your whole experience of being in hospital and seeing doctors will be greatly worsened if you don't speak the language. This is where medical interpreters become heroes. Good news or bad, having it delivered in your language is so much more reassuring.

On top of the reassurance provided by medical interpreters, there's also the incredible level of professionalism required of them. Imagine having to interpret the dialogue between a doctor and a patient when it's not good news. Could you remain and react professionally knowing you have to break potentially life-changing news to a patient? I admit that I'd find it nearly impossible.

In terms of language professionals, medical interpreters are basically superheroes. They have the language skills that many language lovers yearn for, they're the tireless saviours of those in need of a helping hand, and they do all this while putting everybody before themselves.

You're awesome, medical interpreters! I salute you!