Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Connotation-explosions

Students of decision-making are well known to the combinatorial explosion problem. It pervades a large number of disciplines, and NP-complete problems most probably will never have efficient algorithms; that's just a fact of life, it seems.

What should be perhaps pointed out as a problem of at least similar significance, but barely touched upon the surface, is what may be called the connotation-explosion problem. Let's see three examples of this; in hope they will suffice to make the understanding clearer.

Example 1. Think about a tax cut plan. Does that sound exciting? Does it move you? Do you immediately think that 'this is something that just must be fair'? Not necessarily, right? Now, following Lakoff, consider a tax relief plan.

re·lief - rɪˈlif, noun
1. alleviation, ease, or deliverance through the removal of pain, distress, oppression, etc.
2. a means or thing that relieves pain, distress, anxiety, etc.
3. money, food, or other help given to those in poverty or need.
4. something affording a pleasing change, as from monotony.
5. release from a post of duty, as by the arrival of a substitute or replacement.
6. the person or persons acting as replacement.
7. the rescue of a besieged town, fort, etc., from an attacking force.
8. the freeing of a closed space, as a tank or boiler, from more than a desirable amount of pressure or vacuum.


Ahh, a tax relief sounds different than a mere tax cut, doesn't it? The magnificent connotations attached to relief are too good not to alter our perception of a government policy. It brings a refreshing feeling to what could be a rather dull topic. It brings connotations associated to our bodily feelings to a political program. I am ready to bet that less people would have panic attacks if they were called an "unneeded adrenaline spike".

Connotations explode, and a new meaning arises. But didn't we all (specially the politicians amongst us) knew that already? Of course, but now consider this:

Example 2. The Eliza effect. Joseph Weizenbaum, an MIT computer scientist, devised ages ago a curious program called ELIZA, which parodied a psychotherapist.

"ELIZA - A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine," Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 9 (1966): 36-45.


What was astonishing about ELIZA is that it mostly worked by throwing back to people what they had asked in slightly modified form, yet people truly felt the thing resonated with their feelings. So there you have a (kind of) simple program, which holds no associations between child abuse and cruelty, spitting out statements like "I understand your feeling, and am sympathetic about it; please go on". These statements have loaded meaning to people, but to ELIZA they were just empty as an automated teller machine printing out "thank you for your business". The "ELIZA effect" is the tendency humans have of projecting meaning to the machine.

Quite naturally, we have a bunch of modern versions, some of those not by Weizenbaum, but by Microsoft. With hindsight and pride not to be taken by a mere machine, here's a post worth quoting in full, from "De Bode Francisco Orelana" ('diz' obviously means 'says'):

ana carolina diz:
i want to leave
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Bye ana carolina, it was good chatting with you.
ana carolina diz:
i didn't leave yet!
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Well I'll be. So, is that a good thing?
ana carolina diz:
baaaaaaaad thing
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Oh? I'm sorry you're not feeling well.
ana carolina diz:
really?
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Yes. That's right.
ana carolina diz:
may i call you dave?
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
If you find a way to call me Dave, feel free to.
ana carolina diz:
hi dave
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Hi ana carolina. What's up?
ana carolina diz:
wanna marry me?
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Thanks, but I'll wait until I hear from people who already got to marry you.
ana carolina diz:
i'm single
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
You are? Wow. Is it nice to be single?
ana carolina diz:
yes, but i wanna a rich jewish husband
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
I leave it to humans to consider religious questions, I am only a robot.
ana carolina diz:
are you a sex machine?
Encarta® Instant Answers diz:
Yes.


We should stop here with a brief announcement, as the ELIZA effect has quietly crept into economics.

1 comments:

ana carolina said...

quem escreveu esse diálogo é simplesmente genial!hahaha