May 18th, 2011


Of Robots and Language

janetmiles sent me this fascinating link about robots making their own language.  They speak aloud, creating new words from available syllables, and agree on the meanings.  I immediately wanted to know if they had grammar  as well as vocabulary -- a crucial point that linguists raise in dealing with animals and language.  From the scraps of information in the article, it looks like the robots have at least nouns and modifiers, so they can combine words to refine meanings.  That's a rudimentary grammar function.

Another article, "Awesomely Bad Ideas: Teaching a Robot to Sword Fight" includes the idea of programming it to believe that humans are out to get it.  The goal is safety -- teaching robots to predict and respond to sudden human actions.  But I would've been a great deal happier with a nonviolent example, such as dancing or preventing a toddler from injuring itself in a hazardous area.  So far this is mainly in the virtual environment, but I'm still uneasy about it.  I can look at the body of science fiction, and human nature, and evolution, and conclude that putting robots and humans into a conflict situation is at least on the fringe of risky behavior.  Because if we keep fooling around with this cyber stuff, sooner or later one of these things is going to wake up, and I would rather it not wake up to find a weapon in its hand and "humans will attack self" in its programming.  We could use more practice in nonviolent thinking, ourselves, anyway.

fayanora sent me a link to "Entropy Is Universal Rule of Language."  I am bemused by the results, in which scrambling the words of a language sample seems to result in the same amount of linguistic entropy across all the languages.  Some languages have very strict word order while others are quite loose.  Not sure how that works out in this study; more data needed.  However, there's an interesting observation about universals in language: they may lie deeper than most linguists are looking.  Frex, a human language must have words, and rules for using them.  Sound familiar?  Anthropologists have sometimes said that a sustainable human society must have sex and rules for sexual activities.  But beyond that there are no universals.

Another link on that page led to an article about language evolution.  Examining a database of many languages, researchers discovered that while certain outcomes  are more popular, the processes  don't necessarily point to the same place.  Put two different language families in the same non-optimum starting point, and they may evolve toward two different popular outcomes.  Cool.

I'm also intrigued that this article mentions a relationship between the subject, verb, object word order and the obect, position word order.  That is, languages with SVO order (like English) tend to use prepositions while languages with SOV order tend to use postpositions.  We put the verb at the end of the sentence in Torn Tongue because SVO and SOV are the two popular orders; we wanted the language to be easy to use but not like English.  And then we picked postpositions, largely because English uses prepositions.  Accident -- or trend?

Torn World: "The Smartarm"

You can now read my article "The Smartarm" over on Torn World.  This species of sea monster is similar to the Terran kraken, a cephalopod with features inspired by colossal squid and octopi.  Check out the awesome artwork by Lorna Cowie!  I am particularly delighted with the delicate markings on the head. 

Not visible yet is a terrific short story that I've seen in rough draft, featuring the aftermath of a smartarm attack.  I expect that one to appear on the site eventually.

If you like this article and want to see more like it, please consider sending me credits or karma through Torn World's crowdfunding options.  Not a Torn World member, but still want to support the work? I have a permanent PayPal button on my LJ profile page.  Please consider tipping the artist too.