A New Type of Turing Test

In 1950, computer pioneer Alan Turing formulated his famous test for determining whether or not a computer was true artificial intelligence (AI). It involved discourse between humans and a computer, and if the humans could not tell whether they were speaking to a another person or to a machine, then the machine was “intelligent.” A neat idea, but when put in to practice it’s been found to be too easy to fake.

Over the years various improvements to the Turing test have been suggested, and one recent AI challenge used a rather nifty linguistic approach, outlined by this article in the Neurologica blog. At its core, the test, known as the Winograd schema, asks the AI to determine the referent of an pronoun in a sentence. The pronoun would be ambiguous except for one word that provides the necessary context. For example:

The trophy would not fit in the brown suitcase because it was too big.

What does it refer to, the trophy or the suitcase?

In the sentence, big can be replaced with small, which alters the context and the identity of the referent. Humans have no difficulty getting the correct answer (it refers to the trophy when the adjective is big and the suitcase when the adjective is small), but in the challenge the AI performed dismally, with only the best scores equal to chance guessing.

While I suspect that there are probably as many issues with the Winograd schema as there are with the original Turing test, it’s a neat use of language to test reasoning ability.

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Spelling Reform

Anatoly Liberman is one of the leading etymologists out there, author of Word Origins and How We Know Them and the Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology. I did not know until recently, however, that he is also an advocate of English spelling reform. Linguist John McWhorter recently interviewed him regarding that subject for Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast.

Now there is no denying that English spelling is a mess. There an S in island for no phonological or etymological reason. Whole and hole are pronounced the same but spelled differently, and even the most skilled writers occasionally slip when it comes to lead / led and principle / principal. It would be nice if we could fix English spelling, but is such a project possible? And even if we could reform it, would it be worth the effort. The answer, to my mind, is no.

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Man Vs. Marine

The Washington Post reports that the U. S. Marine Corps is eliminating the word man from nineteen of its job titles. An infantryman will now be called an infantry marine, and what was once a field artillery man is now a field artillery marine. Some job titles are retaining the man, however. A marine can still be a rifleman. (How a rifleman differs from an infantry marine I don’t know. Perhaps someone with experience in the Corps can enlighten us.) But manpower officers and marksmanship instructors keep their existing titles.

The move is a result of combat arms positions becoming open to women and is in line with similar shifts in civilian nomenclature that happened decades ago, like policeman to police officer and fireman to firefighter. The changes are quite sensible and in a reasonable world would be uncontroversial. Even the retention of man in some job titles generally follows a logic: retained where it is part of a larger term with no clear gender-neutral replacement (e.g., marksmanship, unmanned) or in places where man is used to refer to staffing (e.g., manpower). Rifleman remains the anomaly. Perhaps it’s being retained for historical and cultural reasons—the identity of the rifleman is so central to the Corps’ vision of itself that it would be anathema to change the word. Or perhaps it was a bureaucratic sop thrown to those on the committee that resisted the changes.

The move is not without its detractors, though. The Post article includes the usual complaints about political correctness, but I haven’t seen any reasoned responses against the move. They all seem to be kneejerk reactions against change. And if anything, by replacing man with marine, the Corps is further strengthening its aura of being a breed apart. You’re not just a man, you’re a marine.

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Woody Words

This classic popped up on my Facebook feed today:

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Journalists love to write articles on language. Not only, since they make their livings with words, do they have a professional interest in the topic, but language is a popular topic. People, at least those who read newspapers, love to read about it. The problem is that journalists often get it completely wrong.

A case in point is an article by Dan Bilefsky that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on 9 June about how use of the period, that staid and boring punctuation mark, is changing. In some forms of discourse, the period does not simply mark the end of a sentence, it conveys urgency or emotion. He gets the facts right, but Bilefsky utterly miscategorizes what is happening, framing the period as “going out of style” and “being felled.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

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