Mull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.

Hans Arndt in memoriam

Jakob Steensig havde flg. triste notits i det seneste nyhedsbrev fra det fhv. Institut for Lingvistik:

Hans Arndt døde i onsdags på Djursland Hospice. Hans Arndt var lektor på lingvistik fra midten af 1980’erne til han holdt op for en del år siden. Hans var den som genstartede lingvistik efter at det næsten var forsvundet. Gennem en utrættelig indsats og en helt usædvanlig åben og dialogisk stil lykkedes det ham i løbet af ti til femten år at få lingvistikfaget, hvor der nogle år i firserne var to eller nul studerende som startede hvert år, og næsten kun ham der underviste, til at blive en succes, med nu seks faste undervisere og langt flere studerende som søger, end der er plads til.

Hans var lingvistik i lang tid. Og han var en utroligt vigtig inspiration for mig og mange andre. Jeg håber at jeg og andre der kendte ham, får lejlighed til at fortælle nye studerende og andre ved lingvistik mere om ham og hans inspiration, men lige nu ville jeg bare sikre mig at alle som kendte Hans, får de sørgelige nyheder.

Jakob har helt ret. Da jeg begyndte på lingvistik i 1990, var Hans Arndt reelt hele den lingvistiske del af instituttet. (Der var naturligvis også en ungarsk og en finsk lektor, da det jo dengang hed Institut for Lingvistik, Finsk og Ungarsk – eller Institut for Lingvistik og Underlige Sprog, som det blev kaldt i folkemunde.) På papiret var der en lingvistiklektor til, men han var udlånt til Jydsk Telefon, så i praksis skulle Hans trække hele læsset selv, kun hjulpet af undervisningsassistenter af svingende kvalitet. Det tog en del år, før bemandingen endelig kom op på et fornuftigt niveau, og det var fantastisk flot, at han klarede at holde det kørende i alle årene.

Hans Arndt var en særdeles dygtig underviser, og han var god til at få det bedste ud af en vanskelig situation – fx fik mange af de studerende mulighed for at være undervisningsassistenter i løbet af uddannelsen (jeg underviste fx i Lingvistiske Teorier før 1920 i forårssemesteret 1996), og det lærte vi meget af.

I sine sidste arbejdsår udvidede han sine undervisningsnoter i Sproglig Analyse til en glimrende populærvidenskabelig bog, Sproget: hverdagens mirakel, og det er en bog, som bør stå i ethvert hjem.

Hvad mindes jeg ellers? Hans fine russiskudtale (han var tidligere sprogofficer og havde i 1968 siddet klar i et jagerfly, da de sovjetiske tankvogne rullede ind i Prag). Lejrbål på plænen på hans nedlagte gård. Og hans fine sangstemme, som han gerne brugte til at synge Poul Henningsens sprogsang med:

For mig er sprogets klang
min mors stemme
kort og klart som hammerslag
med venligt sving.
Hver glose blank og rund
og go’ at ta’ på
alle skarpe kanter slidt
ved hverdagsbrug.

De grønne marker,
det krappe sund,
blå solskinstimer
og månens segl.
Alt det har osse ret.
Hver ting til sin tid.
ord skal være redskab først –
og så musik.

Hør jydens seje stød.
Hør øernes syngen
Hør Køvnenhavnerdrengens ‘a’
når har si’r Far.
Det’ livets tumleplads
det’ sprogets havstok.
Her blir tiden skuret til
og vasket ren.

Det fine menneske,
det sjældne digt
La’ dem beholde,
det skrevne ord.
Men det er brugsværdien
i din og min mund.
Sproget står og falder på:
Det talte ord.

Mindet om ham vil leve længe.

PS: Jeg tror desværre ikke, jeg har noget billede af Hans, som jeg kan bruge til at illustrere denne nekrolog med. Hvis du har et, jeg må bruge, må du meget gerne sende mig det!

Hvad er formålet med Dansk Sprognævn?

radiohuset photo
Photo by seier+seier
Der er i dagens danske aviser flere artikler, der beskriver flytningen af Dansk Sprognævn fra København til Bogense primært fra medarbejdernes synsvinkel (og de er naturligvis ikke glade).

Aviserne er ret ukritiske over for sprognævnets beskrivelse af sig selv. Fx har Berlingske et længere interview med nævnets direktør, Sabine Kirchmeier, hvor hun ikke bliver stillet mange kritiske spørgsmål, ikke engang når hendes udsagn er ret subjektive, som i det flg.:

Dansk Sprognævn er ikke et lukket miljø, hvor vi sidder bag hver vores computer og taster. Vi er en meget udadvendt institution, der laver forskningsprojekter og seminarer og alle mulige andre aktiviteter. Nogle af os er censorer på universiteterne og underviser på universiteterne, og vi har ph.d.-studerende, der bliver vejledt hos os, og studerende, der skriver speciale hos os. Vi fungerer på mange måder som et universitetsinstitut, og hvis man i Moderniseringsstyrelsen, eller hvor man nu har truffet beslutningen, havde læst vores årsberetning, så ville man have set, at vi også får besøg af skoleklasser og holder seminarer om sprog med offentlige institutioner og uddannelsesinsitutioner. Og så videre og så videre.

De aktiviteter, hun beskriver her, lyder ganske rigtigt meget, som om de hører hjemme på et universitetsinstitut. Det underbygges af, at hendes svar på det rimelige spørgsmål, om de ikke bare ansætte nogle andre dygtige sprogfolk er flg.: „Nej, for der findes ikke ret mange med en ph.d.-grad på vores område. Nye medarbejdere skal først uddannes til jobbet, og det tager tre år at tage en relevant ph.d.-grad.“ Jeg har arbejdet i ordbogsbranchen i over femten år, og det er første gang, jeg hører om et sted, hvor der kræves en PhD-grad for at arbejde der (hvorimod det er meget normalt på universiteterne).

Og DSN er jo slet ikke noget universitetsinstitut iflg. loven:

§ 1. Dansk Sprognævn er en statsinstitution, som har til opgave at følge det danske sprogs udvikling, at give råd og oplysninger om det danske sprog og at fastlægge den danske retskrivning.

Stk. 2. Sprognævnet skal

1. indsamle nye ord, ordforbindelser og ordanvendelser, herunder forkortelser,

2. besvare sproglige spørgsmål fra myndigheder og offentligheden om det danske sprogs bygning og brug, herunder give vejledning i stavning og udtale af udenlandske navne,

3. udgive skrifter om dansk sprog, navnlig vejledninger i brugen af modersmålet, og samarbejde med terminologiorganer, ordbogsredaktioner og offentlige institutioner, der autoriserer eller registrerer stednavne, personnavne og varenavne.

Stk. 3. Dansk Sprognævn skal arbejde på videnskabeligt grundlag. I sit arbejde skal nævnet tage hensyn til sprogets funktion som bærer af tradition og kulturel kontinuitet og som spejl af samtidens kultur og samfundsforhold.

Stk. 4. I sager, som vedrører forholdet til andre sprog, forhandler nævnet med tilsvarende organer i de pågældende lande. Nævnet skal især samarbejde med sprognævn og tilsvarende organer i Norden.

[…]

§ 2. Dansk Sprognævn redigerer og udgiver den officielle danske retskrivningsordbog. Heri offentliggøres den af nævnet fastlagte retskrivning.

Stk. 2. I forbindelse med udgivelse af nye udgaver af retskrivningsordbogen kan nævnet på egen hånd foretage ændringer og ajourføringer af ikkeprincipiel karakter.

[…]

§ 3. Sprognævnet udsender hvert år en beretning om arbejdet. I beretningen eller på anden måde offentliggør nævnet mindst en gang om året et udvalg af de udtalelser, som det har afgivet i årets løb.

Det forekommer mig, at sprognævnet har overfortolket „at følge det danske sprogs udvikling“ „på videnskabeligt grundlag“. De to dele står ikke i samme sætning, men det forekommer mig, at de har opfattet det som et carte blanche til at skabe et universitetsinstitut, der forsker i det danske sprogs udvikling. Problemet er, at det ikke nødvendigvis er det, de får deres penge for. Det undstøttes af en mail fra ministeren til Politiken (intet gratis link):

Kulturminister Mette Bock (LA) afviser, at udflytningen bliver et problem for sprognævnet.

„Dansk Sprognævn løser i dag vigtige opgaver for hele landet, som de også kan løse fra Bogense. Arbejdspladserne vil blive en stor gevinst for byen,“ skriver hun i en mail til Politiken. […] „Sprognævnet løser i dag to hovedopgaver, som handler om rådgivning om sprog og at følge sprogets udvikling. Det er opgaver, som løses digitalt og telefonisk. Det kræver ikke en bestemt fysisk placering i København,“ skriver Mette Bock.

Det er naturligvis møgtræls for de berørte medarbejdere, der troede de skulle arbejde på et universitetsinstitut tilknyttet Københavns Universitet og ikke på et ordbogsforlag i Bogense, men det er jo ikke rigtigt regeringens problem.

Det skulle såmænd ikke undre mig, om de diskret er blevet bedt om at skrue ned for deres videnskabelige aktiviteter (det kunne fx begrunde deres sidste flytning fra universitetet til det gamle radiohus), men at de ikke har villet lytte. Deres struktur (med en direktør, en bestyrelse og et repræsentantskab) kunne godt tænkes at gøre det svært for den siddende kulturminister at gennemtrumfe en ændring på andre måder end ved at flytte dem.

Hvis Dansk Sprognævn opfatter sig som et universitetsinstitut, burde de nok opfordre til, at loven skrives om, så den passer med virkeligheden, og derefter burde de nok blive overført til et af universiteteterne. Alternativet er jo nok at flytte til Bogense og ansatte nogle nye medarbejdere, der er gode til at løse de opgaver, loven har bestemt, de skal udføre.

Emil fra Lønneberg og Julemanden

Emil og Julemanden.
Anna (som lige er fyldt ti) læser hver aften lidt op for mig for at blive bedre til dansk (og jeg læser også højt for hende). For tiden læser hun Emil fra Lønneberg, og det går da også ganske godt.

Nogle gange går det dog galt, som for eksempel, da hun glad og fro sagde flg.:

Emil spejdede op i skorstenen, og da så han noget sjovt. I hullet lige over hans hoved hang en rød julemand og kiggede ned til ham.

„Hej med dig,“ sagde Emil. „Nu skal du se en, der kan klatre!“

I originalen står der „julemåne“, men det er nu ikke nær så sjovt!

På samme måde læste hun flg. et par sider senere, men det var nu måske nok med vilje, for hun gjorde det med et skælmsk smil:

Men i Katholtsøen mellem hvide åkander svømmede Emil og Alfred rundt i det kølige vand, og på himlen hang julemanden, rød som en lygte og lyste for dem.

„Dig og mig, Alfred,“ sagde Emil.

„Ja, dig og mig, Emil,“ sagde Alfred, „Det skulle jeg mene!“

Phyllis bestemte sig i øvrigt for at teste Léon på den første passage, og han begik den selvsamme fejl som Anna, så det må være en oplagt fejl for dansk-skotter.

Scots on Smartphones

Writin Scots uisin SwiftKey’s preditive keyboard.
A’ve been fasht for a lang time at predictive keyboards wadna recognise Scots ava – ilka time ye uised a perfecklie normal wird, it wad get chynged tae a completelie different Inglis wird at juist happent tae leuk similar.

Sae A wis weel chuft whan ane o ma clients, Scottish Language Dictionaries, gat a email fae Julien Baley fae SwiftKey (a Lunnon-based companie awnt bi Microsoft) twa-three months syne anent addin Scots tae thair predictive keyboard for Android an iOS. A dae aw the data stuff for SLD, sae o coorse A wis chosen tae wirk wi Julien on this.

A extractit the relevant bits fae the new edition o the Concise Scots Dicionary an sent this tae Julien. Forby, A gied him a earlie version o a corpus (a collection o texts) o modren Scots. He separatelie contactit Andy Eagle and gat the heidwirds fae his Online Scots Dictionary.

Suin efter this, Julien sent me the first version o the keyboard. At this pynt, it daedna ken the Scots inflections, an it wis makkin some unco substitutions (e.g., aA oweraw), sae A advised him on the grammar o Scots an on the substitutions. The final bit wis tae leuk at wirds he fund in the corpus at wisna in the dictionars, an the keyboard wis redd.

Ye can doonlaid SwiftKey on yer Android smartphone the day, but gin ye hae a iPhone, ye maun wait few mair days (technical issues pat it aff).

SwiftKey will lair fae the wey fowks uise it, sae it’ll get better and better.

A howp this will see monie mair fowks writin Scots wi confidence, an ultimatelie tae better support for Scots in programs an on wabsteids. Wad it no be great gin Scots wis supportit in yer spellchecker, in Google Translate, and as Facebook interface leid?

PS: A wis chuft tae sae stories aboot this in The National, The Herald an Bella Caledonia.

AlphaDiplomacy Zero?

diplomacy game photo
Photo by condredge
When I was still at university, I did several courses in AI, and in one of them we spent a lot of time looking at why Go was so hard to implement. I was therefore very impressed when DeepMind created AlphaGo two years ago and started beating professional players, because it was sooner than I had expected. And I am now overwhelmed by the version called AlphaGo Zero, which is so much better:

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

I’m wondering whether the same methodology could be used to create a version of Diplomacy.

The game of Diplomacy was invented by Allan B. Calhamer in 1954. The seven players represent the great powers of pre-WWI Europe, but differently from many other board games, there are no dice – nothing is random. In effect it’s more like chess for seven players, except for the addition of diplomacy, i.e., negotiation. For instance, if I’m France and attack England on my own, it’s likely our units will simply bounce; to succeed, I need to convince Germany or Russia to join me, or I need to convince England I’m their friend and that it’ll be perfectly safe to move all their units to Russia or Germany without leaving any of them behind.

Implementing a computer version of Diplomacy without the negotiation aspect isn’t much use (or fun), and implementing human negotiation capabilities is a bit beyond the ability of current computational linguistics techniques.

However, why not simply let AlphaDiplomacy Zero develop its own language? It will probably look rather odd to a human observer, perhaps a bit like Facebook’s recent AI experiment:

Well, weirder than this, of course, because Facebook’s Alice and Bob started out with standard English. AlphaDiplomacy Zero might decide that “Jiorgiougj” means “Let’s gang up on Germany”, and that “Oihuergiub” means “I’ll let you have Belgium if I can have Norway.”

It would be fascinating to study this language afterwords. How many words would it have? How complex would the grammar be? Would it be fundamentally different from human languages? How would it evolve over time?

It would also be fascinating for students of politics and diplomacy to study AlphaDiplomacy’s negotiation strategies (once the linguists had translated it). Would it come up with completely new approaches?

I really hope DeepMind will try this out one day soon. It would be truly fascinating, not just as a board game, but as a study in linguistic universals and politics.

It would tick so many of my boxes in one go (linguistics, AI, Diplomacy and politics). I can’t wait!

The future belongs to small and weird languages

tlingit photo
Photo by David~O
Google Translate and other current machine translation programs are based on bilingual corpora, i.e., collections of translated texts. They translate a text by breaking it into bits, finding similarities in the corpus, selecting the corresponding bits in the other language and then stringing the translation snippets together again. It works surprisingly well, but it means that current machine translation can never get better than existing translations (errors in the corpus will get replicated), and also that it’s practically impossible to add a language that very few translations exist for (this is for instance a challenge for adding Scots, because very few people translate to or from this language).

My prediction is that the next big break-through in computational linguistics will involve deducing meaning from monolingual corpora, i.e., figuring out the meaning of a word by analysing how it’s used. If somebody then manages to construct a computational representation of meaning (perhaps aided by brain research), it should then theoretically be possible to translate from one language into another without ever having seen a translation before, by turning language into meaning and back into another language. I’ve no idea when this is going to happen, but I presume Google and other big software companies are throwing big money at this problem, so it might not be too far away. My gut feeling would be 10–20 years from now.

Interestingly, once this form of machine translation has been invented, translating between two language varieties will be just as easy as translating between two separate languages. So you could translate a text in British English into American English, or formal language into informal, or Geordie into Scouse. You could even ask for Wuthering Heights as J.K. Rowling would have written it.

Also, the computer could be analysing your use of language and start mimicking it – using the same words and phrases with the same pronunciation. In effect, it could start sounding like you (or like your mum, Alex Salmond or Marilyn Monroe if you so desired).

This will have huge repercussions for dialects and small languages.

At the moment, we’re surrounded by big languages – they dominate written materials as well as TV and movies, and most computer interfaces work best in them. It’s also hard to speak a non-standard variety of a big language, because speech recognition and machine translation programs tend to fall over when the way you speak doesn’t conform. Scottish people are very aware of this, as shown by the famous elevator sketch:

However, if my predictions come out true, all of that will change. As soon as a corpus exists (and that can include spoken language, not just written texts), the computer should be able to figure our how to speak and understand this variety. Because translation is always easier and more accurate between similar language varieties than between very different ones, people might prefer to get everything translated or dubbed into their own variety. So you will never need to hear RP or American English again if you don’t want to – you can get everything in your own variety of Scottish English instead. Or in broad Scots. Or in Gaelic.

Every village used to have its own speech variety (its patois to use the French term). The reformation initiated a process of language standardisation, and this got a huge boost when all children started going to school to learn to read and write (not necessarily well, but always in the standard language). When radio was invented, the spoken language started converging, too, and television made this even more ubiquitous. We’re now in a situation where lots of traditional languages and dialects are threatened with extinction.

If computers start being good at picking up the local lingo, all of that will potentially change again. There will be no great incentive to learn a standard variety of a language if your computer can always bridge the gap if other people don’t understand it. The languages of the world might start diverging again. That will be interesting.