Posted on 17.06.13
Back in January I talked to Chris Reed, Professor of Electronic Commerce Law at Queen Mary, University of London, for an article about the way our digital rights are shifting in the cloud. The following comments didn’t made it into the piece, but I like Chris’s railway analogy.
Historically, it’s the way all these things go. Think about railway transport in the Nineteenth Century. These trains come along and eventually the train companies invent terms and conditions that say, “If we kill you, tough.” And people put up with that because it’s more useful having the trains than having to walk. After a long period of time the whole thing settles down and eventually they row back and they’re forced by legislation and consumer pressure to work out a settlement. But to begin with they have all the power – “We’re running a train, we’ll take you further this week than we took you last week. If you want to sit down and argue about liability that’s fine, but you’ve got to travel by canal barge.” People say, “Ok, I’ll take the train.” That’s kind of the trajectory that we’re seeing with Facebook and others. Facebook is the interesting one because it is the most aggressive in this.
But every bit of law is the product of a kind of dialogue – almost an adversarial dialogue – between the various people whose interests are involved. And you get a kind of regulatory settlement where everybody sits down and says, “This is how we think society ought to work.” Then you get a shock to society like the internet and we’re busy negotiating a regulatory settlement. There’ll be a point in 10 or 20 years time when all this stuff is just so blindingly obvious and part of normal life that we will collectively find it quite easy to work out what the right rules are. But it’s going to take that period of time. We’re in that turbulent period where everything is changing.”
Posted on 25.03.13
One Minute Interview with Ramsey Nasser, New Scientist 23 March 2013.
Disappointed by the heavy reliance on English for programming, computer scientist and designer Ramsey Nasser created a new coding language in Arabic.
Why did you design a programming language that uses the Arabic alphabet?
Studying computer science at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, I was struck that every coding language I have ever learned was in English. I wanted to start a dialogue about our dependence on English in modern programming.
What is it you want to draw attention to?
People have a tendency to see programming languages as immutable, but the opposite is true. The tools we use are built by men and women and are laden with the assumptions they make. This new language is meant to remind people of that and challenge some of those assumptions.
You have said this was an aesthetic project as much as an engineering one.
To programmers, coding languages are aesthetic works. We use words like ugly, gross, elegant and beautiful when talking about different languages. To me, this language, ﻗﻟب (pronounced alb), is a work of conceptual art. It is a celebration of the tradition of aesthetics in language design.
How big a difference do you think a programming language really makes?
Read the whole inteview at New Scientist.
Posted on 03.07.12
Feature written for Wired.co.uk for their Turing Week.
I spoke to Noah Goodman and Michael Frank – cognitive scientists at Stanford University – about the first mathematical model of shared context between speakers and why it’s the key to making computers better at conversation.
“Our best AI systems right now tend to be employed by companies as phone-answering services,” says Michael Frank, head of Stanford University’s Language and Cognition Lab. “But try explaining to these things that you want to cancel a fraudulent charge on your credit card.” He laughs. “You can see there’s a long way to go. They’re weak at understanding what you said, but they’re weakest at going from what you said to what you actually meant.”
When communicating, context is king. Meaning is often conveyed as much by what isn’t said as by what is. For instance, the proposal “Would you like to go for a coffee?” can be turned down with the words “Ihave to return some library books”, even though, taken out of context, those words do not constitute a rejection. But computers can be literal to a fault, with such indirectness lost on them.
Frank and colleague Noah Goodman, also a cognitive scientist at Stanford, have developed a mathematical encoding of what they call “common knowledge” and “informativeness” in human conversation. “We have a vastly powerful predictive model of the world,” says Goodman. “When somebody goes to understand a statement that somebody else has made, they’re making the best guess about the meaning of that statement, incorporating all these factors like informativeness and context.”
Read the whole interview at Wired.co.uk.
Posted on 03.07.12
Written for Summer 2012 issue of I, Science magazine.
Do the words we use determine the world we perceive?
If I say to-mah-toe and you say to-may-toe, to call the whole thing off would be rash. But if I say tomato and you say la tomate, we might be living in subtly different worlds. Do your tomatoes have something in common with cars (la voiture) and houses (la maison) and the Moon (la Lune) that mine do not, simply in virtue of the gender of your words? Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, thinks so. In a series of studies exploring linguistic relativism, she claims to have shown that “even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world”. 
In one experiment, for example, Boroditsky and colleagues asked German and Spanish speakers to describe a key – an object named by a masculine noun in German and a feminine noun in Spanish. Boroditsky found that German speakers were more likely to say “hard”, “heavy”, “metal”, and “useful”, while Spanish speakers favoured terms like “golden”, “intricate”, “little”, and “lovely”, which would appear to suggest that German speakers see keys as having more masculine qualities than Spanish speakers do. It is a fascinating claim, but a controversial one. “Unfortunately,” says Professor Gabriella Vigliocco, of University College London’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, “lack of replication is a major issue in this area.”
“Language is a fundamental feature of how we think about the world,” says Vigliocco. “Language tells us a lot about what concepts there are, and how we should conceive of the world in general.” But her own findings in experiments with English and Italian speakers do not support the idea that linguistic gender has a conceptual effect – despite admitting that it would be “far more interesting” if they did. “The fact that in Italian ‘the fork’ is feminine doesn’t make the fork more female-like, so to speak, than in a language that doesn’t have a gender,” she explains.
According to Vigliocco, linguistic gender comes into play in such experiments only once speakers are prompted to come up with characteristics for an object. “People use whatever resources they have [available] in order to solve such tasks, and if the language has gender, why not?” she says. “If your language were to divide objects into male or female, then that’s an obvious way to go about classifying them.”
The issue is complicated. “Of course language is playing a fundamental role in shaping our cognition,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s also not as black-and-white or as simple as saying ‘oh, this language has two genders, male and female, so for these speakers all the things that have a masculine gender are going to be more male-like than the things that have the female gender.’”
Of particular interest are the more abstract concepts “related to society, politics, religion, and so forth” that we can only access through language– things we cannot experience with our senses. “We learn to categorise the internal world via language,” she says. Our grasp of more abstract concepts may be more susceptible to linguistic influence than concrete ones. Boroditsky, for example, has also looked at whether our perception of time is affected by the way we talk about it. Though there are again difficulties with replication, Vigliocco is more open to that possibility. “In my work, I always claimed that effects of language on cognition should be assessed one by one,” she says. “But this does not exclude the possibility of an effect for time.”
Brain-imaging techniques are now being used to complement behavioural experiments, which might open up new lines of research. “It’s a two-way street,” she says. “Especially if you are looking at how other systems – like perceptual systems – work and are affected by a specific language.” By monitoring what goes on in the brain while people speak, we can learn how words are processed mentally. New techniques might also help with the replication issues of behavioural work. “They are different experimental techniques that really go hand in hand,” she says.
But what of our initial question? Does the way we speak really affect our perception of the world? “I think there is good enough evidence now that language can affect cognition under some conditions,” she says. “So, really, we are beyond asking whether there is some form of relativism or not. Yes, there is. However, this does not also imply that language is the only force sharing our cognitive make-up. Our culture, our physical environment, and our bodies also play a critical role in how our cognition is shaped.”
 “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”, in Max Brockman (ed.) What’s Next? Dispatches On the Future of Science.
Posted on 05.06.12
Written on 5 June for The Dog & Pony Show, my I, Science blog.
Enjoying that cup of coffee? That’ll be 21g of CO2 emissions, please. The sandwich is 40g, the crisps 15g, and the banana 80g. And while 3g for flushing the toilet is thankfully a bargain, washing and drying your hands will cost another 35g. How do I know this? My phone told me. And if David Stefan gets to extend his recent stunt beyond the Chelsea College of Art and Design, yours would tell you too.
Stefan is probably best described as a software engineer, but he splits his time between University College London’s Department of Computer Science and the Urban Sustainability & Resilience Centre where he is working towards a doctorate. For the last month, though, he has been creating an art installation with a team of design students that he hopes will amount to a fresh way of thinking about urban sustainability.
Most of us are used to food coming with a breakdown of dietary information – calories, salt content, saturated fats – so why not add a carbon cost to the list? “Because that number doesn’t tell you much,” says Stefan. “Do you know what 80 grams of CO2 is? I wouldn’t know what it means.” But that is exactly what he and his collaborators wanted to get people asking.
They hit on the idea of sticking QR codes – square barcodes easily read by most of our phones – to as many consumable items as they could. In case these eye-catching yellow and black stickers were not intriguing enough, they finished off the installation by digging up the turf of Chelsea College’s parade ground to make a QR code 12 metres square and viewable only from the sky.
“We somehow came to the idea of a QR code because you can use that idea to basically encode any sort of information,” says Stefan. “If you scan a banana it will take you to a website that tells you the CO2 that’s produced by eating a banana. Growing it, shipping it over to Europe, distributing it to the shops, getting it to the college… We can’t just think in terms of price or how many calories we get by eating a banana – there’s also how big an impact it makes on the environment. That was the main message I think.”
Information is power, they say. Good thing my phone also comes with a calculator.
Image: David Stefan