Paul Raven @ 01-08-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, another piece of ammunition against the Rejectionistas who rely on the old “digital messaging is destroying language through compression and abbreviation and slang!” canard; turns out telegraph operators of the 1890s were rockin’ the txtspk to save on time and limited characterspace:

In their conversations telegraphers use a system of abbreviations which enables them to say considerably more in a certain period of time then they otherwise could. Their morning greeting to a friend in a distant city is usually “g. m.,” and the farewell for the evening, “g. n.,” the letters of course standing for good morning and good night. The salutation may be accompanied by an inquiry by one as to the health of the other, which would be expressed thus: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” or “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.”

By the time these courtesies have taken place some early messages have come from the receiving department or from some other wire, and the man before whom they are placed says to his friend many miles away: “Wl hrs a fu; Gol hang ts everlastin grind. I wish I ws rich.” And the other man says: “No rest fo t wickd, min pen,” the last two words indicating that he wants the sender to wait a minute while he adjusts and tests his pen. Presently he clicks out “g a,” meaning “go ahead,” and the day’s work has begun.

This just in: civilisation still standing after ~120 years of convenience-based linguistic innovation.

[ Well, OK, civilisation’s looking to be on rocky ground right now, but you can’t lay our economic problems at the feet of ppl usn abbrvs. y, u mad? ]

Uplift ethics and transhuman hubris

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2011

There’s a little splash of uplift-related news around the place, thanks to the topic-initiating power of a new documentary film which you may well have already seen mentioned elsewhere: Project Nim tells the story of Nim Cimpsky, the subject of an experiment intended to disprove Chomsky’s assertion that language is unique to human. Here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with the film’s director, James Marsh, at The Guardian:

“The nature-versus-nurture debate clearly was part of the intellectual climate of that time and remains an interesting question – how much we are born a certain way, as a species and as individuals. In Nim’s case, he has a chimpanzee’s nature and that nature is an incredibly forceful part of his life. What [the scientists] try to do is inhibit his nature and you see the results in the story.

“I was intrigued because I hadn’t seen that in a film before, the idea of telling an animal’s life from cradle to grave using the same techniques as you would use for a human biography.”

Marsh admits that conveying Nim’s experiences was tough. “The overlap between the species [human and chimpanzee] does involve emotions. But at the same time I was very wary of those from the get-go. I felt that Nim’s life had been blighted by people projecting on to him human qualities and trying to make him something that he wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky links to a piece about a report from the Academy of Medical Science that calls for new rules to govern research into “humanising animals”, though specifically a more invasive and biological fashion than Project Nim:

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.

“The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us,” he told a news briefing in London.

“These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now.”

Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the “Great Ape Test”. If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to “hold off”.

“If it’s heading in that direction, red lights start flashing,” said Prof Baldwin. “You really do not want to go down that road.”

Dvorsky, a dyed-in-the-wool transhumanist, disagrees:

I’m just as concerned as anyone about the potential for abuse, particularly when animals are used in scientific experiments. But setting that aside, and assuming that cognitive enhancement could be done safely on non-human primates, there’s no reason why we should fear this. In fact, I take virtually the opposite stance to this report. I feel that humanity is obligated to uplift non-human animals as we simultaneously work to uplift ourselves (i.e. transhumanism).

Reading this report, I can’t help but feel that human egocentricity is driving the discussion. I sincerely believe that animal welfare is not the real issue here, but rather, ensuring human dominance on the planet.

Here we run into another reason why I’m a fellow-traveller and chronicler of transhumanism and not a card-carrier, because Dvorsky’s logic seems completely inverted to me. Is it not far more human-egocentric to view ourselves as the evolutionary pinnacle that all animals would aspire to achieve, were they but able to aspire? To make that decision on their behalf, on the basis of our own inescapably human-centric system of value-judgements?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?

Because they are not us. We are related, certainly, this much is inescapable, but a chimpanzee is not a human being, and to insist that uplift is a moral duty is to enshrine the inferiority-to-us of the great apes, not to sanctify their uniqueness. This is the voice of assimilation, the voice of homogenisation, the voice of empire. It is the voice of colonialist arrogance, and a form of species fascism. If we have any moral duty toward our genetic cousins, it is to protect them from the ravages we have committed on the world they have always lived in balance with. Why raise them up to our hallowed state of consciousness if all they stand to inherit is a legacy of a broken planet and a political framework that legitimises the exploitation of those considered to carry a debt to society’s most powerful?

Because make no mistake, even were we able to endow chimpanzees with the same cognitive powers as ourselves, we would still find reasons not to enfranchise them fully. If you can look at the disparities in enfranchisement of different human races and classes and genders in this world that still persist to this day, despite the lip-service liberalism of the privileged Western world to the contrary, and not see that life for uplifted apes would be a condition of slavery to science for science’s own sake (at the very best): a lifetime of being a bug in a glass jar, a curiosity and a joke and an object of pity… well, you can evidently look at the world very differently to how I can. In my world, that’s high-order hubris.

Dvorsky has another post which discusses more recent attempts at “cultural uplift”, which seems to be a more modern and ethically grounded update of Project Nim; while certainly more palatable than more directly biological interventions in animal cognition, I still feel there’s an arrogant flaw in assuming that human culture is superior (and hence obligatory) to an animal’s naturally evolved culture. Am I engaging in a sort of Noble Savage argument here, claiming that ape inferiority should be preserved in order that I can continue feeling superior to it? I don’t believe I am. You can only throw the Noble Savagery claim at me if you claim that there is already no value-difference between human culture and ape culture, and that apes are deserving of the same rights as man… at which point you not only concede the point I’m trying to make, but you also concede that you have no moral or cultural high-ground from which to decide that ape culture is inferior.

Apes are special, because they are so similar to us in so many ways; on this I think we can all agree. But to uplift them would not be an act of protecting and awarding that specialness; it would be, consciously or otherwise, an act of erasure, an attempt to equalise the specialness differential and make them just the same as us.

And that is human egocentricity in action – the same egocentricity whose trackmarks can be seen on the skin of the planet that gave rise to it, and whose roots are in a deep-seated envy and resentment of the innocence that is the true core of the difference between us and the great apes. It is that innocence that uplifting would erase; do you think an ape that thought like a human wouldn’t resent our theft of that innocence? Or would you keep them ignorant of the state they existed in before uplift? Immediately, inevitably, you create the conditions whereby you are obliged to treat these newly-minted man-apes in a less free condition than the one you have claimed to raise them up to.

To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance.

Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.

Man to computer: RTFM

Paul Raven @ 18-07-2011

Via the dashing and debonair Ryan Oakley, researchers at MIT have managed to get a computer to do what most computer users never do, namely Read The Frackin’ Manual. And guess what – the computer’s performance at the task at hand improved hugely! The task in question was… playing Civilisation.

But the task isn’t the point, you see; this is about teaching machines to comprehend input in a linguistic fashion:

The MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab has a computer that now plays Civilization all by itself — and it wins nearly 80% of the time. Those are better stats than most of us could brag about, but the real win here is the fact that instruction manuals don’t explain how to win a game, just how to play it.

The results may be game-oriented, but the real purpose for the experiment was to get a computer to do more than process words as data — and to actually process them as language. In this case, the computer read instructions on how to play a rather complex game, then proceeded to not only play that game, but to play it very well.

If you take the same process and replace gaming with something more real-world applicable, like medicine or automotive tech, you could have a computer that’s able to act as more than just a reference tool. A lot more.

If I’m grokking it right, this is the opposite of the approach embodied by IBM’s Watson, which is essentially a search engine on steroids; I’m reminded again of the Chomsky/Norvig debate, and MIT’s approach here looks to be much more in the Chomsky direction. I suspect some sort of synthesis of the two approaches will bring the best results in the long run.


Lost languages as teen cyphertools

Paul Raven @ 06-07-2011

We’ve talked about social steganography before; for teenagers and other folk restricted to communicating in public and/or monitored virtual spaces, a shared coded language becomes a necessity for the communication of ideas which you don’t want the watchers (be they parents, governments or whatever else) to be able to parse.

But why invent a new language when there are dozens of them lying around, discarded in the margins of a globalised culture? Via Kottke, Mobiledia reports on kids reviving nigh-extinct local languages as a way of carving out their own cultural spaces:

Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City, found young people in southern Chile producing hip-hop videos and posting them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink of extinction.

Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines and Mexico who think it’s “cool” to send text messages in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave.

Almost as soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime, young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the widely used devices.


the adoption of a discarded language makes perfect sense, to keep texting’s cachet among teens exclusive. And linguists are pleased that dying languages are helping teens communicate, keeping the languages alive in the process.

“This really strengthens the use of the language,” said Herrera, who is pleased to find this naturally occurring, albeit somewhat unconventional, solution to the problem of dying native tongues.

In fact, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson, young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. The director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, says that somewhere between the ages of six and 25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay or break with a language.

Score up another point against the Rejectionistas.

Related: via The New Aesthetic, here’s a Flickr pool titled “Faces Illuminated by Displays”. Welcome to The Now.

Iarpa and the Metaphor Machine

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2011

File in duplicate under both “awesome idea” and “kinda scary”; the US intelligence blue-sky department Iarpa is toying with the idea of building a giant database of cross-referenced metaphors from all sorts of languages… which I guess would lead to the identification of metametaphors, if that’s not some sort of semantic impossibility.

The first step is to identify and collect all those metaphors — from English, Farsi, Spanish and Russian — into a huge database. That means analyzing loads of textual data, identifying all the metaphors (“his life took a left turn”; “you must find your own way”), mapping them onto a conceptual metaphor (“life is a journey”) and then … well, after that, it’s not completely clear.

Social science may offer a clue into what we could possibly do with this gigantic metaphor repository, however. Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.

For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.

I wonder how far you could go with this? Maybe we could boil down all human concepts into pure universal metaphors… I’m not sure what use that would be to anyone, but the writer in me thinks it’s a great idea nonetheless.

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