YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack Smith

Computers Are Nothing to Laugh About

July 19, 1988|Jack Smith

Though I use a computer, and it has probably extended my professional life, I do not understand them and I continue to underestimate them.

I have expressed doubt that a computer can deal with ambiguity, irony, the double entendre, and, especially, humor; and that it can feel, laugh or cry.

Recently I mentioned an IBM computer that scans newspaper articles and selects those that would interest particular readers. That is a simple enough computer skill. It merely picks out key words and matches them to key words defining various groups. A story that used the word God several times might be of interest to theologians, unless, of course, God were used as a profanity.

I doubted, though, that a computer could correctly interpret ambiguous headlines, which are a common phenomenon in newspapers.


Contrary to my expectations, the IBM computer engaged in this work correctly read all of them, according to Kathy Dahlgren, Carol Lord, Rob Hagiwara, Susan Hirsh and Joyce McDowell of IBM's Los Angeles Scientific Center, each of whom signed a letter attesting to its success.

" 'GREEKS FINE HOOKERS' was duck soup," they assured me. "The syntactic parser quickly identified fine as the verb and hookers as its direct object, the ones who must pay the fines. (The question of the excellence of Greek hookers was left unaddressed.)"

Well, I'm disappointed. It seems to me it should at least have occurred to the computer that the sentence might mean that Greek hookers, like Melina Mercouri's character in "Never On Sunday," are first-class. They also write, "You wondered whether 'CARIBBEAN ISLANDS DRIFT TO LEFT' would be interpreted as a political or a geographical development. Our system would call upon its common-sense knowledge that islands are natural places, which are stationary, and would infer that they can not move geographically."

Doesn't the computer know that the entire continent of South America broke off from Africa some years ago and drifted to its present location? Doesn't it know that Los Angeles is moving toward San Francisco and that one day the two cities will merge? I wouldn't be surprised any day to see a headline "CARIBBEAN ISLANDS DRIFT TO LEFT" that meant the drift was geographical.

As for "POLICE CAN NOT STOP GAMBLING," the young computechs (is that a suitable noun for their profession?) insist that the computer "accurately concluded that it was gambling which could not be stopped, but it discreetly did not identify who was doing the gambling. However, the common-sense knowledge component of the system 'knows' that police typically aren't lawbreakers, and that gambling is an illegal activity."

What the computer evidently doesn't know is that some cops are lawbreakers, that some gamble and that some can't stop.

The fault, of course, is not with the computer. It is with the headline writer, who, given his limited space, could not say precisely what he meant. How about these? "MILK DRINKERS TURN TO POWDER," "MRS. GHANDI STONED AT RALLY IN INDIA," "SCIENTISTS TO HAVE FORD'S EAR." Kathy, Carol, Rob, Susan and Joyce admitted, however, that their IBM "didn't seem to get" the old Henny Youngman joke ("Take my wife. Please.") They say, "If you have any suggestions on how we might build in a sense of humor, let us hear from you."

I suspect that humor is too elusive, too mysterious, too human ever to be programmed into a machine. I have already repeated the story, from The Times, about an incident in which the uninhibited Tallulah Bankhead opened her hotel room door and "greeted a plumber wearing only a very short cashmere sweater."

Would a computer's common sense tell it that it was Miss Bankhead, not the plumber, who wore only a short cashmere sweater? Would the computer have anticipated Miss Bankhead's remark: "What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a cashmere sweater before?" or understood its delicious irony?

Computers may design skyscrapers and missiles, run corporations, carry out warfare and eliminate diseases, but they will never enjoy a vulgar joke or a Noel Coward play.

Los Angeles Times Articles