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Games Computers Play

Can we really teach computers to understand language, like a human can, or are they more like parrots, able to memorize certain words and phrases without actually grasping the meaning?

A new paper presented by MIT researcher Regina Barzilay and her graduate students indicates that computers will one day  have the capability to truly understand human language…perhaps sooner than we think.

To test how well their machine learning system understands written language, the researchers programmed it to teach itself to play the video game “Civilization” by “reading” the game’s user manual.

The results: after reading the manual, the computer won 79 percent of the games it played, as opposed to 46 percent without the manual.
S. R. K. Branavan, a graduate student who worked on the project, explained to MIT News that games like “Civilization” make an attractive way to test out computer intelligence because they are almost as complex as the real world:

“Games are used as a test bed for artificial-intelligence techniques simply because of their complexity. Every action that you take in the game doesn’t have a predetermined outcome, because the game or the opponent can randomly react to what you do. So you need a technique that can handle very complex scenarios that react in potentially random ways.”

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Icelandic language

The Future of the Icelandic Language 

The Icelandic language is as close as you can get today to the language of the Vikings. Brought to the Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th century, it is the closest living language to Old Norse.  But is the modern digital age threatening to wipe out Icelandic?

It depends on who you ask.

If the latest headlines are to believed, Icelandic is on its last legs. Here’s a sampling:

Icelandic Language At Risk Of Extinction As Robots And Computers Struggle To Understand It – IFLScience.com
Computers don’t even understand it: Icelandic people worrying their language is facing extinction- Associated Press
Low Wages And Digital Death: Icelandic In Crisis

Is the future really all that bleak? Let’s find out.

Is the Icelandic Language in Danger?

At this point, Icelandic is not endangered.  It’s not even classified as vulnerable or threatened. It’s the official language of Iceland. It has 331,000 native speakers. That may not seem like a lot compared to English. But it’s well over the “magic number” of 35,000 that economist David Clingingsmith recently identified as the number of speakers need to keep a language safe (assuming he’s correct).

And most importantly, Icelanders are still teaching the language to their children.

So why all the alarmist headlines?

Icelandic and the Rise of the Machines (That Speak English)

Over the past decade, Icelanders have become increasingly concerned about the cultural presence of the English language.  Knowledge of English is widespread in Iceland.  Because English is so prevalent on the Internet, Icelandic people (especially Millenials) have more reason to use it than ever before.

Then, there’s the rise of the machines: Siri, Google  Now, Alexa, GPS systems . . . it’s now possible to speak to so many of your gadgets and have them talk back . . . in English. Read more

Scottish Siri Issues

Siri Doesn’t Understand Scottish Accents

At its last conference, Apple introduced Siri, a robotic virtual system that comes embedded in the new iPhone 4S.  Right after it was introduced, Apple caught a lot of flack for Siri’s name, which sounds vulgar in both Japanese and Georgian.

Now that the product has been released to the general public, Apple is getting a different type of negative translation-related feedback. Though Siri is supposed to work with all US, UK and Australian accents, it’s apparently giving some Scottish users fits as it doesn’t always understand their commands.

Some Scottish users seem to have more trouble than others. It almost feels wrong to laugh at this poor bastard, for example, as he tries over and over again to get Siri to “create a reminder.”  This gentleman had a little bit better luck, but still had some problems setting appointments and sending messages. Read more

Rosetta Stone

Unlocking the Meaning of an Ancient Hieroglyphic Script

Translating ancient scripts is difficult, especially when the civilization they belonged to is long gone.

We lucked out with the ancient Egyptians when we found the Rosetta Stone, which had the same passage translated into three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek. Since linguists could read classical Greek, they were able to use this knowledge to understand the hieroglyphic script on the stone.

However, there is no similar artefact available for ancient scripts such as the hieroglyphics used by the Indus Valley civilization. These people lived approximately 4,000 years ago, along what it now the Indian-Pakistani border. They were very technologically advanced for that time, living in cities equipped with the first known urban sanitation systems in the world.

They were also excellent traders who developed an extremely accurate, standardized system of weights and measures. But could they write? Many of their artefacts are decorated with symbols, but nobody knows what these symbols mean. In fact, some researchers doubt that they even represent a written language at all.

So, researchers at the University of Washington have teamed up with researchers from India to try to translate the script using computers. The computer program looks at existing examples of the script and tries to perceive patterns in the order of the symbols.

Using a statistical method called the Markov model; the program has been able to demonstrate that the placement of symbols follows a logical pattern, supporting the theory that they represent a language. As one of the researchers noted in the article referenced above, “The finding that the Indus script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia is provocative. This finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.”

Hit West End Show Pioneers Translation Device

The hit West End show Hairspray, currently showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre has introduced a pioneering system which translates the show into 8 languages according to the BBC.

With one third of theatre audiences in London being tourists AirScript developers, Cambridge Consultants, hope the handsets will attract more tourists to London’s theatres.

The translation is received via WIFI and scrolls down throughout the performance. The handset has LED backlighting and the screen has a black background and orange text to minimise glare. It could be quite annoying for other theatre users if the device was too bright. It costs just £6 to hire the device.

The translated subtitles are delivered manually to make sure the line hits the screen at the same time as it is delivered on stage.

It could be quite distracting to look at a device for the whole show rather than getting lost in what’s happening on stage, but it is a great tool for tourists and can only get better as the technology advances.

You Can Haz Spanish!

Last month, we wrote about the potentially dire consequences of the UK’s foreign language shortage for our economy. How do we get more people to learn another language? As it turns out, the common housecat  may hold the key.

Say what? According to research performed by a company called Memrise, people retain information better when it is presented in the form of cute cat pictures. As Memrise COO Ben Whately explained to the BBC:

“We wanted to know what kinds of visual mnemonics were most effective at helping people to learn fast. The pattern began to emerge that pictures of cats always featured disproportionately among the most effective.”

Now, you can channel your obsession with funny cat memes into something productive: learning another language. Read more