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English Detective #30, How computers understand language (or don’t!) : Jan.14, 2014
January 13, 2014

English Detective #30 , How computers understand language (or don’t!): Jan. 14, 2014


The current investigation (Introducing this issue):

This week’s articles are two interesting discussions of artificial intelligence and the difficulty of making computers that can understand context and clues to meaning that are obvious to people.

If people had to explain every thought in complete detail, we would never be able to say all we need to. So the L.A. Times article points out that we have learned to find “a balance between specificity and generality in daily conversation.” We don’t mention details we know our listeners know or can guess from what we do say.

However, computers cannot guess those unspoken details and the meanings that people can understand. The New Yorker discusses how programmers need to find ways to help computers recognize those references.

It is difficult, in part, because computers learn from what is written on the Internet, but many well-known facts are never explicitly mentioned. (They’re already well-known—to people!) They also have difficulty because they don’t know the contexts that people share.

The New Yorker article refers to ‘anaphora,’ in particular to pronouns that refer to earlier nouns. The ones mentioned are obvious to people. However, the nouns which some pronouns refer to are not obvious even to human readers. (When writing in English, it’s a good idea to only use pronouns when it’s quite clear which nouns they refer to. That is usually the noun immediately before a pronoun in a sentence or paragraph. When in doubt, repeat the noun.)

The articles, and this week’s vocabulary, feature several words that are commonly used with negative prefixes. So this week’s practice reviews some academic words with negative prefixes. There’s also some word play, since many of these prefixes are similar to each other. Playing with them is a good way to learn the differences.



Your First Clue: Vocabulary


Review vocabulary: ambiguous, context, distinct, explicit, inherent, substitute. New: artificial (AI: artificial intelligence.)

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A few notes about the new vocabulary:


Three of the vocabulary words are concerned with clarity. Explicit, distinct, and unambiguous all mean that something is clear. Ambiguous and indistinct mean unclear.

Ambiguous means that something can be understood in more than one way.

Distinct means clearly seen and individual-- different than anything else. When something is indistinct, it is not well separated from its surroundings. It often means hard to see, with fuzzy edges, blurred and unfocused.

Explicit means that something is clearly stated, not just assumed or left to the imagination.

Context is what surrounds something. When we read a word in context, the whole discussion helps us understand what the word means. if something is taken “out of context” it is easy to misunderstand.

Public figures are often unhappy when their words are taken out of context. Sometimes their opponents deliberately quote just a few words with the purpose of twisting the quote’s meaning, because it isn’t clear (or may even mean something completely different) without the rest of what the speaker said on the subject.

Computers have difficulty because they cannot understand how the context—the setting—can change the meaning of a word.

Inherent means an essential quality or basic part of something’s nature

To substitute means to use something or someone to take the place of another. A substitute teacher takes a teacher’s place when the regular teacher is absent.

Artificial means something man-made, not natural. Often it’s a copy designed to look natural, like artificial flowers. Artificial intelligence is the kind of reasoning people can put into machines—a computer’s “thinking.”

Getting the whole story: reading/listening practice:


Click here for the L.A. Times article on context.

The New Yorker article on A.I. is here

Follow the Clues (Vocabulary Practice):


Click here to practice negative prefixes.

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Coming in the next issue: The Social Value of research (How it is used—and misused)

In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with all 570 words from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here.

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