Q&A with Dr. Lior Zalmanson
Q&A with Dr. Lior Zalmanson
Interview with Dr. Lior Zalmanson, digital artist and Internet researcher
“I believe that all the popular chatbots in the market – Siri, Alexa, Google Home, and so on – are changing the way in which we speak.” says Dr. Lior Zalmanson, a researcher into the internet at Haifa University Dept of Knowledge and Information Management, digital artist and curator and creator of the digital culture festival “Print Screen.” He current works on examining the language and relationship between human beings and chatbots. “I started by watching videos on YouTube, about how kids talk to chatbots. You get the feeling from the videos that kids are taking their frustrations out on the chatbots; they become little dictators, lording it over this helpless creature that responds to every demand of theirs. This suggests that our style of communication will change. From there, I began to think that the types of words and the way we formulate sentences will change. When we talk with a chatbot, we speak as though it were someone of limited understanding, with problems in comprehension – we simplify sentences, speak slowly, use simple words. From there came the idea for the project – to find a universal language that bots will understand, by removing from the English language all those words that confuse bots.”
It’s very reminiscent of Newspeak, in Orwell’s 1984.
“Exactly. It’s does hark back to Newspeak. You can control people by controlling language. George Orwell is definitely being referenced. Another reference is a dictionary entitled Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, which was created in the early 1930s, end of the colonialist period, by linguist Charles Kay Ogden, who defined 850 words as basic English. When you come to a new country – for the most part used in Asia – and you want the natives to be able to speak in English with the British, these are the words that they need to know. The list includes the items that come to mind immediately – verbs, nouns, and simple attribution terms – on-off, put-take, eat-bring.” In his book The System of Basic English, Ogden declared: “What the world needs most is another thousand dead languages – and one more living one.” Orwell was familiar with the idea of Basic English, which he initially supported; he later changed his mind. In 1984, he introduced Newspeak, a contracted English in the spirit of Basic English, which the Ingsoc rulers of Oceania wished to introduce in place of the full English language (Oldspeak). In the dystopian novel, Syme, who works at Oceania’s Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) on the development of Newspeak and on writing its dictionary, explains to the hero, Winston Smith, the idea behind the language: “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050. […]
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the 11th Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?’
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As with the English Socialist Party’s attempt to shrink the language, so as to control the people, Zalmanson wants to shrink the language and distill from it the Newspeak through which people control chatbots, in order to test the relationship between them. “I am finding people on Fiverr who will read out the 850 words from Ogden’s dictionary in different accents. I then run these through the chatbots’ voice recognition algorithms, and I begin to remove from the lexicon all those words that the bots have difficulty with,” he explains. “I see how the bot deciphers the word, and delete words that bots fail to identify unambiguously. Often it is words that sound like other words, or words with many syllables. I am slowly recreating the Orwellian process of deleting words from the lexicon, and I will be left with a limited dictionary, I estimate that I will be left with 250-300 words. I will check what kind of language comes into being, which sentences can be created in it. I could make a training video for language, using only the words that it is permitted to say, or take famous speeches from history and delete all of the words that the bots don’t understand. All kinds of games with the limitations of the language – what kind of world does the language create? Because the limitations of the language are the limitations of the world.”
Are you afraid that, if bots are used in education, they will harm the vocabulary and breath of thinking of the students, instead of broadening them?
“What worries me a bit, from the examples on YouTube, is the new type of relationship that the child develops with the chatbot. I think, and I would hope, that with a teacher the children have a relationship of respect, admiration, humility and fear or awe. The chatbot as teacher is a person that I can control, that is subject to my authority, and this changes the power balance and the feeling. We think of the chatbot as a friend, but it is a friend with comprehension issues. It is very much under the control of the person operating it.”
It is subject to two masters – both the person communicating with it and its creator as well.
“You give it commands, and it carries them out. That’s the function of a regular computer, but when it’s presented via a human voice or a chat that seems human, we are in fact teaching the child that here is a human voice that will do all that he asks. And if it’s a female voice – generally speaking the chatbots are female – what does that say for relations between men and women?”
I read a science fiction story in which one of the characters explained that those who built the spaceship gave it a female voice, because people find it more pleasant and comfortable to speak with a woman rather than a man.
“I am sure that this is backed up by research and surveys, but I think that this creates a parallel between ‘female character’ and ‘character subject to authority, who submits to the desires of others.’ In the present day and age, this is something that should raise questions. It’s exactly the opposite of a female teacher – who has the authority and is the one who ultimately has the final say.”
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