August 20, 2014
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
What was your first reaction when you heard about Blake Lemoine, the Google engineer who announced last month the AI program he was working on had developed consciousness?
If, like me, you’re instinctively suspicious, it might have been something like: Is this guy serious? Does he honestly believe what he is saying? Or is this an elaborate hoax?
Put the answers to those questions to one side. Focus instead on the questions themselves. Is it not true that even to ask them is to presuppose something crucial about Blake Lemoine: specifically, he is conscious?
In other words, we can all imagine Blake Lemoine being deceptive.
And we can do so because we assume there is a difference between his inward convictions – what he genuinely believes – and his outward expressions: what he claims to believe.
Isn’t that difference the mark of consciousness? Would we ever assume the same about a computer?
It is not for nothing philosophers have taken to calling consciousness “the hard problem”. It is notoriously difficult to define.
But for the moment, let’s say a conscious being is one capable of having a thought and not divulging it.
This means consciousness would be the prerequisite for irony, or saying one thing while meaning the opposite. I know you are being ironic when I realise your words don’t correspond with your thoughts.
That most of us have this capacity – and most of us routinely convey our unspoken meanings in this manner – is something that, I think, should surprise us more often than it does.
It seems almost discretely human.
Animals can certainly be funny – but not deliberately so.
What about machines? Can they deceive? Can they keep secrets? Can they be ironic?
It is a truth universally acknowledged (among academics at least) that any research question you might cook up with the letters “AI” in it is already being studied somewhere by an army of obscenely well-resourced computational scientists – often, if not always, funded by the US military.
This is certainly the case with the question of AI and irony, which has recently attracted a significant amount of research interest.
Of course, given that irony involves saying one thing while meaning the opposite, creating a machine that can detect it, let alone generate it, is no simple task.
But if we could create such a machine, it would have a multitude of practical applications, some more sinister than others.
In the age of online reviews, for example, retailers have become very keen on so-called “opinion mining” and “sentiment analysis”, which uses AI to map not merely the content, but the mood of reviewer’s comments.
The success rate of the most recent sarcasm detectors approaches an astonishing 90%
Knowing whether your product is being praised or becoming the butt of the joke is valuable information.
Or consider content moderation on social media. If we want to limit online abuse while protecting freedom of speech, would it not be helpful to know when someone is serious and when they are joking?
Or what if someone tweets that they have just joined their local terrorist cell or they’re packing a bomb in their suitcase and heading for the airport? (Don’t ever tweet that, by the way.) Imagine if we could determine instantly whether they are serious, or whether they are just “being ironic”.
In fact, given irony’s proximity to lying, it’s not hard to imagine how the entire shadowy machinery of governmental and corporate surveillance that has grown up around new communications technologies would find the prospect of an irony-detector extremely interesting.
And that goes a long way towards explaining the growing literature on the topic.
Humanoid robot Sophia attending a news conference in Kyiv in 2018
To understand the state of current research into AI and irony, it is helpful to know a little about the history of AI more generally.
That history is typically broken down into two periods.
Until the 1990s, researchers sought to program computers with a set of handcrafted formal rules for how to behave in predefined situations.
If you used Microsoft Word in the 1990s, you might remember the irritating office assistant Clippy, who was endlessly popping up to offer unwanted advice.
Since the turn of the century, that model has been replaced by data-driven machine learning and neural networks.
Here, enormous caches of examples of a given phenomena are translated into numerical values, on which computers can perform complex mathematical operations to determine patterns no human could ever discover.
Moreover, the computer does not merely apply a rule. Rather, it learns from experience, and develops new operations independent of human intervention.
The difference between the two approaches is the difference between Clippy and, say, facial recognition technology.
To build a neural network with the ability to detect irony, researchers focus initially on what some would consider its simplest form: sarcasm.
The researchers begin with data stripped from social media.
For instance, they might collect all tweets labelled #sarcasm or Reddit posts labelled /s, a shorthand that Reddit users employ to indicate they are not serious.
The point is not to teach the computer to recognise the two separate meanings of any given sarcastic post. Indeed, meaning is of no relevance whatsoever.
Instead, the computer is instructed to search for recurring patterns, or what one researcher calls “syntactical fingerprints” – words, phrases, emojis, punctuation, errors, contexts, and so forth.
On top of that, the data set is bolstered by adding more streams of examples – other posts in the same threads, for instance, or from the same account.
Irony is not one kind of language among many
Each new individual example is then run through a battery of calculations until we arrive at a single determination: sarcastic or not sarcastic.
Finally, a bot can be programmed to reply to each original poster and ask whether they were being sarcastic. Any response can be added to the computer’s growing mountain of experience.
The success rate of the most recent sarcasm detectors approaches an astonishing 90% – greater, I suspect, than many humans could achieve.
So, assuming AI will continue to advance at the rate that took us from Clippy to facial recognition technology in less than two decades, can ironic androids be far off?
Machines now learn from experience, and develop new operations independent of human intervention
But isn’t there a qualitative difference between sorting through the “syntactical fingerprints” of irony and actually understanding it?
Some would suggest not. If a computer can be taught to behave exactly like a human, then it’s immaterial whether a rich internal world of meaning lurks beneath its behaviour.
But irony is arguably a unique case: it relies on the distinction between external behaviours and internal beliefs.Here it might be worth remembering that, while computational scientists have only recently become interested in irony, philosophers and literary critics have been thinking about it for a very long time.
And perhaps exploring that tradition would shed old light, as it were, on a new problem.
For Schlegel, irony does not simply entail a false, external meaning and a true, internal one. Rather, in irony, two opposite meanings are presented as equally true. And the resulting indeterminacy has devastating implications for logic, most notably the law of non-contradiction, which holds that a statement cannot be simultaneously true and false.
De Man follows Schlegel on this score, and in a sense, universalises his insight. He notes every effort to define a concept of irony is bound to be infected by the phenomena it purports to explain.
Indeed, de Man believes all language is infected by irony, and involves what he calls “permanent parabasis”. Because humans have the power to conceal their thoughts from one another, it will always be possible – permanently possible – that they do not mean what they are saying.
Irony, in other words, is not one kind of language among many. It structures – or better, haunts – every use of language and every interaction.
And in this sense, it exceeds the order of proof and computation. The question is whether the same is true of human beings in general.
Emerging religions and cults in Asia are deeply intertwined with politics: in China, religions need political approval, while in Japan religious groups use political platforms to assert themselves. Not even the killing of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, carried out by a member of the Unification Church, has prompted a closer look at exactly what role religion plays in society.
African countries have mostly stayed quiet on the war in Ukraine. And with good reason. Western influence is diminishing on the continent, and Russian President Vladimir Putin knows how to push the right buttons of African autocrats.
Seventy years after her death, displays in Buenos Aires, including a vast collection of pictures shown online, recall the life and times of "Evita" Perón, the Argentine first lady turned icon of popular culture.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.