Speakeasy: Mind your language

Perhaps, aliens can help our digital assistants with linguistic assistance.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: April 29, 2018 6:26:29 am
While it’s nice to have a digital assistant which understands what you want, the big challenge for natural language processing will come with alien contact. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The SPIRIT of Rick Briggs was upon President Ram Nath Kovind at the convocation of the Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, where he said Sanskrit is the most appropriate language for writing algorithms, and for machine learning and artificial intelligence. He resuscitated a nationalist legend that refuses to die, and it is strengthened by every iteration.

The myth was born in fanciful readings of a paper which appeared in 1985 in AI Magazine, titled Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence. Nowhere in the paper did Briggs, a serious AI professional at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre, make any claims about programming languages. The paper concerned human languages, and the objective of making them accessible to computers as input — and not as program.

Today, a search engine’s ability to understand the queries we input, complete with typos, is an everyday miracle. Search for “best chesp hotl in Paharganj”, and ye shall find the place. But it took decades of work to get computers to do natural language processing, and condescend to understand the messy and constantly evolving languages that we speak.

What Briggs claimed in that paper that turned Sanskrit legendarily into the next Lisp can be established in the first two paragraphs of the abstract: “In the past 20 years, much time, effort, and money has been expended on designing an unambiguous representation of natural languages to make them accessible to computer processing. These efforts have centered around creating schemata designed to parallel logical relations with relations expressed by the syntax and semantics of natural languages, which are clearly cumbersome and ambiguous in their function as vehicles for the transmission of logical data. Understandably, there is a widespread belief that natural languages arc unsuitable for the transmission of many ideas that artificial languages can render with great precision and mathematical rigour…But this dichotomy, which has served as a premise underlying much work in the areas of linguistics and artificial intelligence, is a false one. There is, at least, one language, Sanskrit, which for the duration of almost 1,000 years was a living spoken language with a considerable literature of its own. Besides works of literary value, there was a long philosophical and grammatical tradition that has continued to exist with undiminished vigor until the present century. Among the accomplishments of the grammarians can be reckoned a method for paraphrasing Sanskrit in a manner that is identical not only in essence but in form with current work in Artificial Intelligence. This article demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also…”

That’s clear enough. If you wish to read the paper, it’s at the website of the Association for the Advancement of AI in Palo Alto. Programmers may find the quarter-page ad at the end interesting. It offers the logic programming language Prolog, used in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence, on disk for $69.95.

It now takes about 30 seconds to install SWI-Prolog on a Linux machine, for free, and you can learn the rudiments in about an hour. It’s kind of fun because unlike mainstream programming, where you tell the machine what to do, you tell the machine what you want. And, quite literally, logic serves as the programming language. Prolog has not flourished in commercial computing, though it’s at the heart of IBM’s Watson. But it sparked off a nationalist war in the AI community at one time — one based on real issues. Prolog is of French provenance and was favoured by European researchers. The Americans rooted for Lisp, instead. As always, location matters. Lisp is now the most popular language for AI.

While it’s nice to have a digital assistant which understands what you want, the big challenge for natural language processing will come with alien contact. Both science and politics will be caught with their pants down by this long-awaited event. Would the UN have to pass a resolution before aliens can be asked to take us to their leader? It is not known. And how would we converse with the leader? While aliens in the movies reliably speak in gutteral English, the real thing could communicate in completely alien grammar, syntax and semantics. It could even communicate by non-vocal means — light, microwaves, geometries or even odours.

Why not? The spectrum of light represents a huge vocabulary. Bees dance to show where the nectar is. Ants communicate complex messages by pheromones. And a rose is a rose is a vrittapushpam. That’s Sanskrit, the fabled pseudo-programming language for computers. But what do they call a rose on Proxima Centauri b? And, more importantly, by what means, or at what wavelength, do they call it?

Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

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