Parrots, Programming, and the Bleeding Edge

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September 27, 2016 by libroshombre

 

Old Alexander Pope was on to something when he described good conversation as “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” But, oh, how rarely such events materialize! Nonetheless, humans sometimes achieve those heights, like during the old Friday Night Fights sponsored by the Gillette Razor Company. That show featured the first effective use of an irresistible jingle, the “Look Sharp March” composed by Maylon Merrick, the musical director for the Jack Benny TV show.

You may recall the Gillette spokesbird, “Sharpie,” leading the singing as the fights got under way. I recalled it going, “To look sharp, dah dah dah, dah-dah/ To feel sharp, dah dah dah, dah-dah,” and so on, the rest being lost to the fog of time. Being a qualified reference librarian, I looked up the actual lyrics and discovered that many other people had similar “dah dah dah, dah-dah” recall. Perseverance revealed that the Gillette Company used various verbal jingles to accompany their memorable march tune, such as “To look sharp, every time you shave/ To feel sharp, and be on the ball/ To be sharp use Gillette Blue Blades for the quickest, slickest shaves of all!”

A modern parrot, name of Bud, has also been of lingual interest. According to a June WashingtonPost.com article, “Bud, an African gray parrot, may have witnessed the shooting that left Martin Duran dead and his wife seriously injured. They believe this because the bird’s latest phrase – the one he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs mimicking his owner’s voice – is a chilling one: ‘Don’t f—-ing shoot!” The Michigan prosecuting attorney confirmed that “the authorities are studying the parrot’s words to determine whether the bird’s speech can be considered admissible in a court of law. “It’s an interesting novelty, and it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn about African parrots,’ he said.”

One of the books featured in this fall’s Guys Read program is “The Pixilated Parrot,” by Carl Barks, Disney’s creator of Uncle Scrooge, in which Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, purchase a used parrot from a sailor fresh off a banana boat. “Pixilated” means “driven by pixies, bemused, eccentric.”

Verbal intercourse hit a new pixilated low when programmers designed the first auto-translation software, and it’s hasn’t improved much. “Wife Cake and Evil Water: The Perils of Auto-Translation,” a June, 2016 BBC.com article by Mark Smith said, “we keep being promised that machine learning and natural language processing will soon make flawless, near-instantaneous translation a reality.” It described Skype’s latest attempt at auto-translation, “which allows voice-to-voice translation in seven languages. But even this hi-tech development was not without teething problems, randomly turning Mandarin words into obscenities.”

Most translation software analyzes a huge corpus of pre-translated texts from the target languages, and then “uses statistical probabilities to select the most appropriate translation.” New programs utilize “artificial neural networks” that are “structured similarly to the human brain and use complex algorithms to select and use the appropriate translation. But rather than just translate the words, the neural network can learn metaphors and the meaning behind the language, allowing it to select a translation that means the same thing to a different culture, rather a direct literal translation.”

“But,” Smith warned, “before you think auto-translation is on the verge of perfection, think again.” He quotes translation technology expert University of Edinburgh professor Philipp Koehn, “There are very hard problems with semantics and knowledge representation that have to be solved first, and that we are not close to solving … For example, Chinese doesn’t have the equivalent use of plurals, verb tenses, or pronouns as in English … And English doesn’t use gendered nouns.”

Smith then quoted Clem Chambers, “the chief executive of ADVFN, a global stocks and shares information website … ‘For us, when it comes to creating geographic and language-targeted websites, nothing beats having native speakers who actually have a thorough understanding of the financial markets’ … In other words, translation tech has it uses, but rely on it entirely at your peril.” That’s “bleeding edge” technology, and as Mr. Pope’s warned, “Be not the first by whom the new are tried,/ Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

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