Does Data Dream of Human Queries?

While reading the articles for Tuesday’s class I am struck by two things: 1) I am overwhelmed by how complicated a simple search can be, and 2) searching is seemingly becoming sentient. As far as I can tell, the difference between syntactic and semantic search is that the latter has a sort of awareness of connotation, context, and meaning-as-use. This implicitly connects with John Searle’s notion of speech acts, and it explicitly connects with his thought experiment the ‘Chinese Room.’ So, it seems that a search is basically a form of a ‘perlocutionary act,’ wherein person one makes a statement and person two processes that statement as a request and performs the task. This is not as simple as a syntactic search function because oftentimes queries (human and digital) are made that require subtleties, such as connotation and context. If I was at class with a friend and said I would really enjoy reading a book that they happened to own, the clear contextual meaning is that I might want to borrow the book, but the meaning is not on the surface.

Similarly, this relates to the ‘Chinese Game,’ a thought experiment that attempted to show that Strong AI is a misnomer, and that—in fact—computers are incapable of real consciousness. This makes me reconsider what true consciousness is and what it means to interact between the lines. Computers have, for some time, been able to process commands, and Searle essentially argues that processing a command is the extent of their function, but the Quamen slides suggest a very different interaction. The semantic web “invents a language so that the meaning of pages is searchable,” and the database or search engine is able to process that meaning and interact with your query. It is startling to me that computers are becoming more adept at this process, and perhaps better at understanding human interaction and undertones than we are.

This, in conjunction with Linked Data, will generate still more interaction. It seems that the transition from syntactic to semantic parallels the transition from HTML to RDF. The article states that the results of this more complex, layered web of data will “make typed statements that link arbitrary things in the world…a web of things in the world, described by data on the web” (2). Data will begin assessing the world and generating producing statements about it, which makes me wonder when consciousness begins and ends. My computer can interact with other computers, it understands its surrounding and responds to it, and it understands by queries even if they’re slightly wrong or predicated on context. Do you think my computer judges me when I binge watch House of Cards?

2 thoughts on “Does Data Dream of Human Queries?

  1. Loren Springer

    Wow, Matt, that’s a really deep question – where does consciousness begin and end? If computers can do the same things we do what is it that makes us different? I would probably say invoking emotional responses. Even if computers can be programmed to have an emotional response to stimuli, it’s programmed. Ours is from something different, I like to think. It’s from whatever makes us human that makes us different from computers. That doesn’t answer the question, it only brings me back to the beginning question. So humanity continues to answer this question.

    And even if I your computer judges you for binge watching House of Cards, I don’t because I watched 3 seasons in like 4 weeks. [Yes, I sacrificed a lot of sleep during those 4 weeks.]

  2. Geoffrey Emerson

    Let me begin with the first line of a candy-wrapper style joke:
    What is the difference between a human user entering data and learning?…

    I agree with both of you. I actually began my blog draft with the words-its seems like databases are reaching the post-human level. If databases are able to reach past the binary and are able to discern more nuanced forms of meaning really is the ability to choose the nature of a relationship between all others. I mean, this has to be qualified by the fact that the information has to be entered by a human user, so the real question is: what is the difference between a human user entering data and an organism learning? If we begin talking about pure data, and start collapsing “the world” into the lines and lines of data that we use to describe them, then there really isn’t much difference between human entered data and learning since there really is no distinction between a human as representative of a node in the linked data web, and everything else on that web (which would include the computer I am using right now). I agree that what I have written here is a slippery slope, but I think it represents a crucial fault line of questions imbedded in the readings for this week.

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