Tag Archives: central
This is part one of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.
We’re in the middle of a boom time for natural language processing (NLP), the field of computer science that focuses on linguistic interactions between humans and machines. Thanks to advances in machine learning over the past decade, we’ve seen vast improvements in speech recognition and machine translation software. Language generators are now good enough to write coherent news articles, and virtual agents like Siri and Alexa are becoming part of our daily lives.
Most trace the origins of this field back to the beginning of the computer age, when Alan Turing, writing in 1950, imagined a smart machine that could interact fluently with a human via typed text on a screen. For this reason, machine-generated language is mostly understood as a digital phenomenon—and a central goal of artificial intelligence (AI) research.
This six-part series will challenge that common understanding of NLP. In fact, attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.
Attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.
While specific technologies have changed over time, the basic idea of treating language as a material that can be artificially manipulated by rule-based systems has been pursued by many people in many cultures and for many different reasons. These historical experiments reveal the promise and perils of attempting to simulate human language in non-human ways—and they hold lessons for today’s practitioners of cutting-edge NLP techniques.
The story begins in medieval Spain. In the late 1200s, a Jewish mystic by the name of Abraham Abulafia sat down at a table in his small house in Barcelona, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink, and began combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in strange and seemingly random ways. Aleph with Bet, Bet with Gimmel, Gimmel with Aleph and Bet, and so on.
Abulafia called this practice “the science of the combination of letters.” He wasn’t actually combining letters at random; instead he was carefully following a secret set of rules that he had devised while studying an ancient Kabbalistic text called the Sefer Yetsirah. This book describes how God created “all that is formed and all that is spoken” by combining Hebrew letters according to sacred formulas. In one section, God exhausts all possible two-letter combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.
By studying the Sefer Yetsirah, Abulafia gained the insight that linguistic symbols can be manipulated with formal rules in order to create new, interesting, insightful sentences. To this end, he spent months generating thousands of combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and eventually emerged with a series of books that he claimed were endowed with prophetic wisdom.
For Abulafia, generating language according to divine rules offered insight into the sacred and the unknown, or as he put it, allowed him to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”
Combining letters to generate language allows thou to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”
—Abraham Abulafia, mystic
But other Jewish scholars considered this rudimentary language generation a dangerous act that bordered on the profane. The Talmud tells stories of rabbis who, by the magical act of permuting language according to the formulas set out in the Sefer Yetsirah, created artificial creatures called golems. In these tales, rabbis manipulated the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to replicate God’s act of creation, using the sacred formulas to imbue inanimate objects with life.
In some of these myths, the rabbis used this skill for practical reasons, to make animals to eat when hungry or servants to help them with domestic duties. But many of these golem stories end badly. In one particularly well-known fable, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, used the sacred practice of letter combinatorics to conjure a golem to protect the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks, only to see the golem turn violently on him instead.
This “science of the combination of letters” was a rudimentary form of natural language processing, as it involved combining letters of the Hebrew alphabet according to specific rules. For Kabbalists, it was a double-edged sword: a way to access new forms of knowledge and wisdom, but also an inherently dangerous practice that could bring about unintended consequences.
This tension reappears throughout the long history of language processing, and still echoes in discussions about the most cutting-edge NLP technology of our digital era.
This is the first installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Come back next Monday for part two, “In the 17th Century, Leibniz Dreamed of a Machine That Could Calculate Ideas.”
You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading
What’s the world’s hardest machine learning problem? Autonomous vehicles? Robots that can walk? Cancer detection?
Nope, says Julian Sanchez. It’s agriculture.
Sanchez might be a little biased. He is the director of precision agriculture for John Deere, and is in charge of adding intelligence to traditional farm vehicles. But he does have a little perspective, having spent time working on software for both medical devices and air traffic control systems.
I met with Sanchez and Alexey Rostapshov, head of digital innovation at John Deere Labs, at the organization’s San Francisco offices last month. Labs launched in 2017 to take advantage of the area’s tech expertise, both to apply machine learning to in-house agricultural problems and to work with partners to build technologies that play nicely with Deere’s big green machines. Deere’s neighbors in San Francisco’s tech-heavy South of Market are LinkedIn, Salesforce, and Planet Labs, which puts it in a good position for recruiting.
“We’ve literally had folks knock on the door and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” says Rostapshov, and some return to drop off resumes.
Here’s why Sanchez believes agriculture is such a big challenge for artificial intelligence.
“It’s not just about driving tractors around,” he says, although autonomous driving technologies are part of the mix. (John Deere is doing a lot of work with precision GPS to improve autonomous driving, for example, and allow tractors to plan their own routes around fields.)
But more complex than the driving problem, says Sanchez, are the classification problems.
Corn: A Classic Classification Problem
Photo: Tekla Perry
One key effort, Sanchez says, are AI systems “that allow me to tell whether grain being harvested is good quality or low quality and to make automatic adjustment systems for the harvester.” The company is already selling an early version of this image analysis technology. But the many differences between grain types, and grains grown under different conditions, make this task a tough one for machine learning.
“Take corn,” Sanchez says. “Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect this corn. And we take lots of pictures of kernels to give it. Say we pick those kernels in central Illinois. But, one mile over, the farmer planted a slightly different hybrid which has slightly different coloration of yellow. Meanwhile, this other farm harvested three days later in a field five miles away; it’s the same hybrid, but it also looks different.
“It’s an overwhelming classification challenge, and that’s just for corn. But you are not only doing it for corn, you have to add 20 more varieties of grain to the mix; and some, like canola, are almost microscopic.”
Even the ground conditions vary dramatically—far more than road conditions, Sanchez points out.
“Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect how much residue is left on the soil after a harvest, including stubble and some chaff. Let’s drive 2,000 acres of fields in the Midwest looking at residue. That’s great, but I guarantee that if you go drive those the next year, it will look significantly different.
“Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen. And in agriculture, you always feel that there is a set of conditions that you haven’t yet classified.”
A Flood of Big Data
The scale of the data is also daunting, Rostapshov points out. “We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world,” he says. “We are gathering 5 to 15 million measurements per second from 130,000 connected machines globally. We have over 150 million acres in our databases, using petabytes and petabytes [of storage]. We process more data than Twitter does.”
Much of this information is so-called dirty data, that is, it doesn’t share the same format or structure, because it’s coming not only from a wide variety of John Deere machines, but also includes data from some 100 other companies that have access to the platform, including weather information, aerial imagery, and soil analyses.
As a result, says Sanchez, Deere has had to make “tremendous investments in back-end data cleanup.”
Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen.”
—Julian Sanchez, John Deere
“We have gotten progressively more skilled at that problem,” he says. “We started simply by cleaning up our own data. You’d think it would be nice and neat, since it’s coming from our own machines, but there is a wide variety of different models and different years. Then we started geospatially tagging the agronomic data—the information about where you are applying herbicides and fertilizer and the like—coming in from our vehicles. When we started bringing in other data, from drones, say, we were already good at cleaning it up.”
John Deere’s Hiring Pitch
Hard problems can be a good thing to have for a company looking to hire machine learning engineers.
“Our opening line to potential recruits,” Sanchez says, “is ‘This stuff matters.’ Then, if we get a chance to talk to them more, we follow up with ‘Not only does this stuff matter, but the problems are really hard and interesting.’ When we explain the variability in farming and how we have to apply all the latest tools to these problems, we get their attention.”
Software engineers “know that feeding a growing population is a massive problem and are excited about the prospect of making a difference,” Rostapshov says.
Only 20 engineers work in the San Francisco labs right now, and that’s on a busy day—some of the researchers spend part of their time at Blue River Technology, a startup based in Sunnyvale that was acquired by Deere in 2017. About half of the researchers are focusing on AI. The Lab is in the process of doubling its office space (no word on staffing plans for that expansion yet).
“We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world.”
—Alexey Rostapshov, John Deere Labs
Company-wide, Deere has thousands of software engineers, with many using AI and machine learning tools in their work, and about the same number of mechanical and electrical engineers, Sanchez reports. “If you look at our hiring 10 years ago,” he says, “it was heavily weighted to mechanical engineers. But if you look at those numbers now, it is by a large majority [engineers working] in the software space. We still need mechanical engineers—we do build green machines—but if you go by our footprint of tech talent, it is pretty safe to call John Deere a software company. And if you follow the key conversations that are happening in the company right now, 95 percent of them are software-related.”
For now, these software engineers are focused on developing technologies that allow farmers to “do more with less,” Sanchez says. Meaning, to get more and better crops from less fuel, less seed, less fertilizer, less pesticide, and fewer workers, and putting together building blocks that, he says, could eventually lead to fully autonomous farm vehicles. The data Deere collects today, for the most part, stays in silos (the virtual kind), with AI algorithms that analyze specific sets of data to provide guidance to individual farmers. At some point, however, with tools to anonymize data and buy-in from farmers, aggregating data could provide some powerful insights.
“We are not asking farmers for that yet,” Sanchez says. “We are not doing aggregation to look for patterns. We are focused on offering technology that allows an individual farmer to use less, on positioning ourselves to be in a neutral spot. We are not about selling you more seed or more fertilizer. So we are building up a good trust level. In the long term, we can have conversations about doing more with deep learning.” Continue reading
People surf it. Spiders crawl it. Gophers navigate it.
Now, a leading group of cognitive biologists and computer scientists want to make the tools of the Internet accessible to the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dubbed the Interspecies Internet, the project aims to provide intelligent animals such as elephants, dolphins, magpies, and great apes with a means to communicate among each other and with people online.
And through artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other digital technologies, researchers hope to crack the code of all the chirps, yips, growls, and whistles that underpin animal communication.
Oh, and musician Peter Gabriel is involved.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control,” the former Genesis frontman, dressed in his signature Nehru-style collar shirt and loose, open waistcoat, told IEEE Spectrum at the inaugural Interspecies Internet Workshop, held Monday in Cambridge, Mass. “This will be integral to changing our relationship with the natural world.”
The workshop was a long time in the making.
Eighteen years ago, Gabriel visited a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he jammed with two bonobos, a male named Kanzi and his half-sister Panbanisha. It was the first time either bonobo had sat at a piano before, and both displayed an exquisite sense of musical timing and melody.
Gabriel seemed to be speaking to the great apes through his synthesizer. It was a shock to the man who once sang “Shock the Monkey.”
“It blew me away,” he says.
Add in the bonobos’ ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols, Gabriel notes, and “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and very blind not to notice language being used.”
Gabriel eventually teamed up with Internet protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, and IoT pioneer Neil Gershenfeld to propose building an Interspecies Internet. Presented in a 2013 TED Talk as an “idea in progress,” the concept proved to be ahead of the technology.
“It wasn’t ready,” says Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “It needed to incubate.”
So, for the past six years, the architects of the Dolittlesque initiative embarked on two small pilot projects, one for dolphins and one for chimpanzees.
At her Hunter College lab in New York City, Reiss developed what she calls the D-Pad—a touchpad for dolphins.
Reiss had been trying for years to create an underwater touchscreen with which to probe the cognition and communication skills of bottlenose dolphins. But “it was a nightmare coming up with something that was dolphin-safe and would work,” she says.
Her first attempt emitted too much heat. A Wii-like system of gesture recognition proved too difficult to install in the dolphin tanks.
Eventually, she joined forces with Rockefeller University biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco and invented an optical detection system in which images and infrared sensors are projected through an underwater viewing window onto a glass panel, allowing the dolphins to play specially designed apps, including one dubbed Whack-a-Fish.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Gabriel worked with Alison Cronin, director of the ape rescue center Monkey World, to test the feasibility of using FaceTime with chimpanzees.
The chimps engaged with the technology, Cronin reported at this week’s workshop. However, our hominid cousins proved as adept at videotelephonic discourse as my three-year-old son is at video chatting with his grandparents—which is to say, there was a lot of pass-the-banana-through-the-screen and other silly games, and not much meaningful conversation.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control.”
The buggy, rudimentary attempt at interspecies online communication—what Cronin calls her “Max Headroom experiment”—shows that building the Interspecies Internet will not be as simple as giving out Skype-enabled tablets to smart animals.
“There are all sorts of problems with creating a human-centered experience for another animal,” says Gabriel Miller, director of research and development at the San Diego Zoo.
Miller has been working on animal-focused sensory tools such as an “Elephone” (for elephants) and a “Joybranch” (for birds), but it’s not easy to design efficient interactive systems for other creatures—and for the Interspecies Internet to be successful, Miller points out, “that will be super-foundational.”
Researchers are making progress on natural language processing of animal tongues. Through a non-profit organization called the Earth Species Project, former Firefox designer Aza Raskin and early Twitter engineer Britt Selvitelle are applying deep learning algorithms developed for unsupervised machine translation of human languages to fashion a Rosetta Stone–like tool capable of interpreting the vocalizations of whales, primates, and other animals.
Inspired by the scientists who first documented the complex sonic arrangements of humpback whales in the 1960s—a discovery that ushered in the modern marine conservation movement—Selvitelle hopes that an AI-powered animal translator can have a similar effect on environmentalism today.
“A lot of shifts happen when someone who doesn’t have a voice gains a voice,” he says.
A challenge with this sort of AI software remains verification and validation. Normally, machine-learning algorithms are benchmarked against a human expert, but who is to say if a cybernetic translation of a sperm whale’s clicks is accurate or not?
One could back-translate an English expression into sperm whale-ese and then into English again. But with the great apes, there might be a better option.
According to primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, expertly trained bonobos could serve as bilingual interpreters, translating the argot of apes into the parlance of people, and vice versa.
Not just any trained ape will do, though. They have to grow up in a mixed Pan/Homo environment, as Kanzi and Panbanisha were.
“If I can have a chat with a cow, maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
Those bonobos were raised effectively from birth both by Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught the animals to understand spoken English and to communicate via hundreds of different pictographic “lexigrams,” and a bonobo mother named Matata that had lived for six years in the Congolese rainforests before her capture.
Unlike all other research primates—which are brought into captivity as infants, reared by human caretakers, and have limited exposure to their natural cultures or languages—those apes thus grew up fluent in both bonobo and human.
Panbanisha died in 2012, but Kanzi, aged 38, is still going strong, living at an ape sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. Researchers continue to study his cognitive abilities—Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is running one study in which Kanzi and other apes hunt rabbits and forage for fruit through avatars on a touchscreen. Kanzi could, in theory, be recruited to check the accuracy of any Google Translate–like app for bonobo hoots, barks, grunts, and cries.
Alternatively, Kanzi could simply provide Internet-based interpreting services for our two species. He’s already proficient at video chatting with humans, notes Emily Walco, a PhD student at Harvard University who has personally Skyped with Kanzi. “He was super into it,” Walco says.
And if wild bonobos in Central Africa can be coaxed to gather around a computer screen, Savage-Rumbaugh is confident Kanzi could communicate with them that way. “It can all be put together,” she says. “We can have an Interspecies Internet.”
“Both the technology and the knowledge had to advance,” Savage-Rumbaugh notes. However, now, “the techniques that we learned could really be extended to a cow or a pig.”
That’s music to the ears of Jeremy Coller, a private equity specialist whose foundation partially funded the Interspecies Internet Workshop. Coller is passionate about animal welfare and has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts toward the goal of ending factory farming.
At the workshop, his foundation announced the creation of the Coller Doolittle Prize, a US $100,000 award to help fund further research related to the Interspecies Internet. (A working group also formed to synthesize plans for the emerging field, to facilitate future event planning, and to guide testing of shared technology platforms.)
Why would a multi-millionaire with no background in digital communication systems or cognitive psychology research want to back the initiative? For Coller, the motivation boils to interspecies empathy.
“If I can have a chat with a cow,” he says, “maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the September 2019 print issue as “Elephants, Dolphins, and Chimps Need the Internet, Too.” Continue reading