“Let’s See How Measured You Are.”

You may get the impression I’m a solitary creature: blogging, reading history books, meditating, thinking way too hard about the music I listen to. But I assure you, hypothetical reader, I do in fact – how you say – “socialize with persons,” and on occasion I even venture outdoors.

Just a couple week ago, in fact, I was best man at a friend’s wedding. I went full tuxedo. And you know I was rocking these bad boys:

Ahead, warp factor CLASSY. Engage!

Star Trek cufflinks. Does it get any more stylish? I submit that it does not.


In order to rent a tux, one must try on a tux, which is why I was in a Men’s Wearhouse the Thursday before the wedding. (Get it? Men’s Wearhouse? Because you wear the suits? Oh, aren’t they clever!)

As I was standing outside the changing rooms, trying to look like I knew the difference between a cummerbund and a pocket square, a little girl (maybe four years old) was playing nearby. Someone had given her a measuring tape, and she was determined to use it. She marched up to her mother, held the tape to Mom’s arm, and said with unfettered confidence:

“Let’s see how measured you are.”

Let’s see how measured you are. Nonsense, yet totally sensible. And because I’m geeky enough for ten regular human beings, this innocent phrase got me thinking about AI.

You hear sometimes about computer scientists writing language parsers, programs that pick apart a sentence into subject, verb, object, subordinate clauses, adverbial phrases, and all those fun high-school-English-class terms. Then they look at the meaning of each word, and construct an overall meaning by putting everything back together. They discover that their method doesn’t work with idioms, so they build a database of those and add to it constantly. Pretty soon their program can figure out a few simple sentences, and they feel like they’re making progress.

Let’s see how measured you are. What now, language parser?

The girl’s comment made it blindingly obvious that human beings don’t work that way. We don’t build precise meanings out of precise structures. We learn to use language the same way we learn to use any other tool: by trial and error, and by imitation. She had heard these words before in a similar order, so she gave it a shot. And even though it wasn’t “right,” I knew what she meant.

After making this revelatory remark, she started messing with the measuring tape. She held it up to different parts of Mom’s body, not actually measuring anything, just going through the motions. No definite goal, no organized plan. Playing. Imitation, trial and error.

The same thing she did with her sentence.

I’ve said before that in the Neats vs. Scruffies AI debate, I fall squarely in the Scruffy camp. This is just another reason why.

Of course, the Neats might counter that an AI need not learn or think in the same way a human does, and they’d be absolutely right. But I say, if you’re going to understand a language, you’d better remember what kind of minds created it.

So that’s me. What questions have you geeked out about lately?

One response to ““Let’s See How Measured You Are.”

  1. Pingback: Dead Trube Day | Ben Trube

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