Categories
Philosophy

Automating Language

The technologies used to computationally automate the analysis and production of text content rely on the implicit statistical regularities of human language. We all know that these tools are really just parroting back the patterns and narratives of speech and written artefact without any degree of comprehension or intent but it is quite simple to be fooled into thinking that machine intelligence does understand language. This last point is of course a partial mirror of the Turing Test but what interests me more is that, if linguistic structure and patterned speech or written text is not too difficult to parse and reproduce by an unthinking machine that can emulate parts of human speech sufficient to lead us to believe that a person directly generated (i.e. spoke or wrote) them, then how do we know that other people actually understand what they say and are not merely producing compelling strings of words from a (similarly) unthinking, unknowing yet embodied and organic neural network between their ears?

If we can so easily begin to doubt the capacity of other minds to understand what they say, then it is only a short hop, skip and jump to consider that we might ourselves be only pretending to understand anything at all. This would imply that our comprehension and embodied subjective awareness of the meaning of the words and sentences we produce is some kind of illusion that we have acquired along the evolutionary and cultural path towards where we now find ourselves. This would also indicate that we do not even in the slightest bit produce the language and linguistic patterns we serially cultivate within and between us all, but – rather – that this whole human circus of narrative confusion and frustrating ambiguity is quite clearly the primary reality and subjectivity as individuated selfhood is an illusion.

If we are hollow vessels for language, we know nothing; if language is the hyper-extended cognition of human sentience as technology, this communications tool is purely functional and empty of knowledge. I think that the truth, or at least a truth, lies somewhere between us possessing a comprehensive understanding of the language we produce and being little more than a compliant transmission medium for the information-processing artefacts, entities and systems of our world.

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