Communication, as we may remember, consists of four parts: sender, receiver, message and medium. The sender constructs a message that consists of specific content and transmits that content through a particular medium: voice, symbols, letters, waving flags, Morse code, whatever it takes to deliver the message. For communication to be considered effective, the receiver must both receive and understand the message.
With that in mind, I would submit that humans communicate with computers, albeit in a very limited way. Yes, we send them lots of messages:
"Remember this text I'm typing," "Save this file," "Open that file," "Print this picture," which our computers will execute. But the average computer, other than doing what the print command demands, is not aware of what the word "print" means outside the context of a machine executable command.
However, creating sentient, self-aware, artificial intelligence (AI) is the Holy Grail of computing. We are intrigued by this notion and have created many fictional characters with artificial intelligence that have the ability to understand meaning well enough to hold rational conversations, including the paranoid HAL 9000 (heuristically programmed algorithmic computer) from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the intelligent car KITT (short for "Knight Industries Two Thousand"), from Knight Rider, and Data (an android who serves as the second officer and chief operations officer) from Star Trek, to name just a few. But how to create artificial intelligence in the real world is the question of the day.
In the last issue of CHIPS we looked at how humans use computers as calculators and external memory storage, two functions that do not require true cognitive behavior on the part of the machine. In this issue, we will look at how we might develop systems capable of more than just crunching numbers or storing static bits of information, systems capable of understanding the meaning of what we tell them in addition to merely doing what we command.
To Serve Man
As happens sometimes, my choice of topic was inspired by a visit with Zippy, Zippette, and their now six-year old twins, Paul and Cassie. They also have one other new family member: a four-foot tall humanoid robot they call "Alfie."
"It's really cool," Zippy said. "Watch this! Alfie, bring me some tortilla chips and medium salsa."
Alfie ambled into the kitchen and returned about two minutes later with two bowls, one filled with tortilla chips and the other with the appropriate salsa. Of course, all the food in the kitchen had to be properly labeled and stored in the correct locations for it to do this, and all the terms had to be pre-programmed into the robot. But Zippy was correct, it was very cool to have our own robotic butler.
Zippy continued to put Alfie through his paces, and the little robot soon had us supplied with enough drinks and munchies to make it through the first half of the Super Bowl. Things were going well until Zippy spilled some salsa on his shirt and decided to have Alfie clean him up with the command, "Alfie, wipe off my shirt."
Fortunately for Zippy, Alfie was not particularly strong, though the shirt needed several new buttons after the robot tried to do what Zippy told it to do instead of what Zippy meant it to do. Computers do have a tendency to take things literally.
The Meaning of Meaning
The word "semantic" is defined as: "Of or relating to meaning, especially meaning in language." The "Semantic Web" concept is based on the idea that we can evolve our current static, separate stores of language-based information and build a system that approximates how a human mind relates information in memory based on the meaning of its contents.
For a more detailed explanation, here are some excerpts from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C®) introductory page on the Semantic Web: