Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"I want to play baseball as soon as possible"

That's what my 7-year-old son David said to me just before bed time last night.  I said, "What do you mean?" and the conversation went along like this:

David reiterates "I want to play baseball as soon as possible"
I reiterate "What do you mean?"
David reiterates "I want to play baseball as soon as possible"
I reiterate "What do you mean?"
David reiterates "I want to play baseball as soon as possible"
I reiterate "What do you mean?"
David reiterates "I want to play baseball as soon as possible"

Now David has a _very_ slight speech delay so he was completely patient with me, and I with him, because we are used to misunderstandings.  What I thought David meant was that he wanted to play baseball next season instead of t-ball.  My wife Nancy has forced the vocabulary on us that t-ball is not  baseball.  David had finished watching a Dodger game earlier that evening and I had even suggested we go outside and play baseball during the game (though we ended up playing video games instead).  I don't want to suggest to David that he play baseball instead of t-ball next season because he is bound for success at t-ball but while he would probably be fine at baseball he is likely to be harder on himself than if he is playing t-ball (and he is quite hard on himself unfortunately).  So instead of saying "do you mean you want to play baseball instead of t-ball next season?" I just said "what do you mean" so that in case I was wrong I would not put the idea into his head :-)

Finally, I realized what the other option was, which was that he really just wanted to play baseball with me at the next possible chance, and that right now was not a good idea so instead of setting himself up for a "not right now" he replaced "I want to play baseball now" with "I want to play baseball as soon as possible".  Thus, "as soon as possible" did not mean "next season" but, "right now or as soon as possible".

Once I realized what the two options were I said "Do you mean you want to play baseball instead of t-ball next season, or do you mean you want to go outside and play baseball with me tomorrow?"  He said, "I want to play baseball with you tomorrow, which is as soon as possible."

The subtext in such a simple communication is sort of ridiculous.  Perhaps we humans make this all way too complicated because, when we first learned to communicate as monkeys, we did it to gossip about or endear ourselves to other monkeys.  Thus all communication had a purpose of instilling a point-of-view into another monkey.

I wonder if computers will need to understand language at this level in order to be useful, or if it will be easier for them to learn language and understand "I want to play baseball as soon as possible."  I suspect understanding motivations will be key to understanding communication, but perhaps many communications are simpler and do not require it, and thus computers will be useful users of language without being fully competent.  I suppose it depends on the task and whether there is much drawback to the computer making a mistake or admitting that it does not understand.  Siri makes a decent case that for some tasks, like finding restaurants, those two failure modes are OK.  But once you've found the restaurant, Siri is not much use, and the cell phone goes back to being useful mostly for connecting to humans or human-generated content like websites.

-Andrew

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