If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with a saying that illustrates some of the basic challenges of disambiguation:
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
But did you know who said it first? I didn’t until recently.
Turns out it was Groucho Marx.
Incidently, Roger Schank’s lesser-known next-generation follow-up was:
John saw Mary with another teacher. Mary saw John with another woman.
Think of the information encapsulated in that!
And surely you know of the early machine translation system that took a phrase from English to Russian and back and wound up transforming:
The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.
The vodka was good but the meat was rotten.
I think that story was true. But I’ll close with one that’s wholly aprocryphal, and not as well known in the linguistics community as the others are.
A research project produced a prototype of a speech-operated tactical advisor. Demo day came, and a General (with entourage) was ushered into a room with a tactical simulation. The engineers did a good job of rattling off situation reports, as officers might at an actual staff meeting. The project lead then gestured to the General that he should proceed. He cleared his throat:
“So, computer, which course of action do you recommend? Shall we maintain a defensive stance, undertake a frontal assault, or try a flanking maneuver.”
There was a pause, as tapes spun and things clacked and clattered. (This is an OLD apocryphal story.) After a while, a mechanical voice replied:
Aggravated by this logical but useless literalism, the General shouted “Yes, what??”
Immediately the computer replied: