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"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas"

Why Understanding Human Language is Hard for Computers and How Modern AI is Changing the Game

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”

A classic example of the Marx Brothers’ humor, which often relied on rapid-fire jokes and absurd scenarios. Why is human language, let alone humor, so hard to understand for computer programs?

Human language is difficult for computer programs to understand because it is inherently complex, ambiguous, and context-dependent. Unlike computer languages, which are based on strict rules and syntax, human language is nuanced and can vary greatly based on the speaker, the situation, and the cultural context.

What are the key challenges in understanding human language?

  • Ambiguity: Words and phrases can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the word “bank” can refer to a financial institution or the side of a river.
  • Idiomatic expressions: Many expressions and phrases in human language are idiomatic and cannot be translated literally. For example, “kick the bucket” means to die, but the words themselves have no connection to death.
  • Context dependence: The meaning of a word or phrase can change depending on the surrounding words and the larger context in which it is used. Often, such relations are long distance relations, referring to words elsewhere in the sentence or in other sentences (at least, if the text is well written).
  • Spelling and grammatical variations: Human language is full of variations in spelling, grammar, and usage, making it difficult to create a set of strict rules for understanding and interpreting it.
  • Dealing with lexical, syntactical, or semantical errors, slang, or just bad writing skills.

As a result, building computer programs that can accurately understand and interpret human language has been an ongoing challenge for artificial intelligence researchers.

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