Popular culture often depicts intelligent machines as coldly rational––capable of making “objective” decisions that humans can’t. More recently, however, there’s been increased attention to the presence of bias in supposedly objective systems, from image recognition to models of human language. Often, these biases instantiate actual human prejudices, as described in Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Mass Destruction; for example, statistical models engineered to predict recidivism rates include information that would never be allowed in a courtroom, and perpetuate cross-generational cycles of incarceration.
A recurring question in both scientific and public discourse is whether any given property of an organism is innate or learned. This debate, usually framed in terms of Nature vs. Nurture, often centers around properties of human behavior and cognition: intelligence, language, morality, mathematics, and so on. But while this dichotomous framing perhaps seems obvious to us now, when did the question first arise? And is it really the best way to investigate these properties?
Anyone who’s ever used Siri has likely experienced the frustration of not being understood. There’s a fundamental – almost existential – panic that surfaces when someone else doesn’t know what you’re saying.
It’s an even bigger problem for people with accents other than “General American English”. Voice interfaces struggle with accents, from regional American accents to foreign-accented speech. But why?
Pretty much since its inception, one of the core principles of linguistics has been that language is arbitrary (De Saussure, 1916; Hockett, 1960). That is, there’s no apparent relationship between a sign and what it signifies; nothing inherent about the word “dog” suggests that it must refer to the DOG concept.
Language is a central component of human interaction. We use language for everyday conversations, for writing emails, discussing scientific research, composing poetry, and much more. Crucially, the use of language does not occur in a vacuum; language is always produced in a given context, and is always interpreted in a given context. Context includes everything from the speaker’s tone of voice to the entire relationship history between the speaker and listener – anything beyond the words in the actual sentence. The consideration of this context in developing a model of what language means is called pragmatics.