What's so special about a computer?

A computer's personality

A computer's personality is distinctive in a number of ways. You will fairly soon discover that he (or she, if you like) is going to :
  1. take everything you say at face value
  2. be quite intolerant of stupidity
  3. lack any sense of humour

Maybe this sounds pretty negative. Well, there are more positive sides to the computer's character. If you are inclined to be bossy, you might like to know that he:

  1. prefers being told what to do rather than take the initiative
  2. can be persuaded to do anything you choose. (At least, as long as whatever needs doing has been or can be explicitly formulated and is physically possible. There is no point in saying to a desktop machine - Hey pass me that sandwich.)
  3. will do whatever you choose

(As a freind, you can easily overlook the so called 'inaccuracy' of computers in numerical calculation, which can, it must be said, have devastating repercussions. This is a direct result of the size of a computer's brain, which necessitates the systematic truncation of long numbers. It is not the consequence of any failure of the computer to behave in accordance with its instructions.)

So what do you get out of talking to a computer?

Taken together, this bundle of character traits looks likely to make talking to a computer a much more testing and sometimes more aggravating business than talking to a human. It is. But there is one extremely important benefit which makes any aggravation worth while. In talking to a computer, you are forced - in a way that few humans will force you - to clarify your thoughts, to make explicit what perhaps you might otherwise, out of laziness, have preferred to leave vague. If you are interested in developing ideas, then, you will soon realise that talking to a computer gives you an extremely practical way to formalize - or to clarify - these ideas and, more significantly, to test them out. For a linguist, whose aim is to develop clear, precise theories and language descriptions, a computer turns out to be just the sort of taskmaster required.

Speaking clearly does not come naturally

Just in case you are not immediately convinced that you need some training to express ideas or instructions explicitly, you might try to instruct a friend (acting the robot) to draw a letter 'g' on a piece of paper. If the person you are dealing with is able to play the part well - i.e. is determined to have every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed! - and insists on doing only what you say rather than what you intend, this will prove less easy than you might have imagined. Natural language communication has developed in response to everyday human requirements, not those of some dumb machine.

More to the point, if you are a linguist, you will find that being precise enough about linguistic notions to satisfy a computer is also more demanding than talking loosely to an understanding, forgiving human being. Are you really sure, for example, that , right now, you could formulate the rules for pluralisation in English clearly enough for a computer to be able to pluralise any noun which I might select at random? The chances are that you will need some considerable prodding to get you ideas straight.

Ron Brasington
Department of Linguistic Science
The University of Reading

E-mail: ron.brasington@rdg.ac.uk