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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

AI requires an understanding of intent: a look at an old movie




I was watching a movie from 1934 called “Chained.”  Clark Gable plays an American rancher whose ranch is in Argentina. They are rivals for the same woman. Gable’s  rival is a richer and classier man who is a shipowner. They meet in New York (together with the woman they are fighting over) and have the following conversation:


do you ship any of your animals up here?

yes, some cattle

I hope you use our boats

no your rates are too high

well, we’ll have to see about that

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

good economics; where did you learn about that?

I was at Yale

I’m Harvard


This conversation tells one all there is to know about AI, education, and learning (my three favorite topics.)

First AI. How would you get a computer to respond to

good economics; where did you learn about that?

with I was at Yale?

First, this is not an answer to the question. Also, the question isn’t what it seems to be. Where did you learn not to waste money? is a fairly obnoxious question. The word “economics” makes the question sound as if it were more than it was. But, one doesn’t ask someone who has said something simple (I try to save money when I can is all he was saying after all) about where he has learned it. Unless of course you are talking to a four year old. This is a remark made by someone who thinks he is much better than the person to whom he is speaking. 

I was at Yale is not an answer to where Gable learned this at all. It is an answer to the underlying snooty question that is really being asked, which is more or less I guess you aren’t as dumb as I thought you were. The answer I was at Yale means I am fancier than you thought I was.

I’m Harvard is a response that says that we are in the same class after all. I feel better about talking to you now.

How would a computer understand the power games going on here? How should it understand that Harvard and Yale are actually answers about social class and that this conversation is in no way about economics nor is it about any economics courses that Gable might have taken at Yale. It is about two people sizing each other up, which is something that often goes on in a conversation where two powerful people meet, and especially one where a woman they are fighting over is at the table.

So here is a translation of this conversation that most people who were watching this movie would have  subconsciously understood:

how do you do your business?

can I make money on you?

no your rates are too high, I’ll explain 

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

well; you aren’t stupid, but do you have any actual education? Are you in my social class?



I am as good as you are

So you are.


Can a computer do any of this?  Of course not. 

In order to understand what people’s real intentions are and what they really mean by what they say you have to understand a great deal about the world in which we live. In fact, since is a 1934 movie after all, many younger people might have trouble understanding it. If you don't see Harvard and Yale as class markers, you would miss it. In 1934, Harvard and Yale were the ultimate class indicators. Today, this is still true but in a different sort of way. 

Today, we would see  I’m Harvard as being an odd way to talk, not as a way of being snooty and saying I am as good as you are. But we also, in today's world, understand that anyone who goes to Harvard must be very good at test taking, and must have been an all A student in high school. This was not true in 1934. 

Elon Musk can fear smart computers all he wants, but until computers can glean the underlying intent of a sentence on many levels he hasn’t much to worry about. Modern AI is about key words and search not about ideas. The main ideas in this dialogue are never actually mentioned, so searching key words won’t help much. The shipowner is saying, more or less: let’s find out how good you are because I am sure I am better than you and therefore better for this woman we are fighting over. The rancher’s response is I am as good as you are. In fact the movie has the woman going back to Clark Gable because of this very scene. She had previously said she wanted money and social status and Gable proved he was his rival’s equal.

Where can you find all this? Not in the actual sentences uttered, that is for sure. Understanding is about context and inferences and intent. One must figure out other people’s goals and plans in any conversation. Which of today’s ‘AI’s’  can be in a conversation and figure out just the right thing to say to undercut the other person?

How do we learn to do all this? Might we learn it at Yale? You would, in fact, but probably not in class. Real learning, the kind that forces us to re-think what we are doing and look for the underlying intentions of those with whom we are engaged, takes place in the dorms and after class. The teacher can babble at you all you want but you still have to talk to people, sound intelligent, figure out where they are coming from, and attempt to engage them and perhaps convince them. This is learned at Yale but it is not taught at Yale.

In fact, very little of that we need to teach people and what people need to learn in order to understand the world is learned at school, its learned from experience and reflection on that experience.

We have AI wrong, learning wrong, and education wrong. Other than that we are doing fine.


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