Last week while browsing the library's shelves for something on Perl programming I found a real pearl, deeply flawed but nonetheless thought-provoking: The Fifth Generation Fallacy Why Japan Is Betting Its Future on Artificial Intelligence by J. Marshall Unger of the University of Hawaii (Oxford, 1987). This mistitled book offers a plausible socio-economic-linguistic explanation of the (much touted at the time) Fifth Generation Project. Unger argues that the Japanese writing system --- an æsthetic mix of Chinese ideograms and phonetic symbols --- is woefully inefficient and in fact causes low productivity and impaired literacy throughout Japan. The 5th Gen was, Unger contends, born of a vain and confused hope to overcome that linguistic handicap via computer magic.

One may enjoy this tome and still believe (as I do) in the long-term possibility of "strong AI", that is, machine consciousness. Professor Unger disbelieves, for various reasons --- but no matter. He's a linguist, not a mathematician. The best part of his book is a fascinating discussion of the written Japanese language. He notes, "Human beings learn to live with this large, open-ended set of characters, with their countless variations, even though they do so in, by computer standards, highly unsystematic and unreliable ways. People are adept at perceiving contexts and guessing at the meaning of unfamiliar characters without the guidance of hard and fast rules; they easily tolerate ambiguity in both language and writing...."

Unger talks about the common confusion between sound, symbol, and meaning:

On the social front, Prof. Unger discusses the serious challenges of alphabetization, filing, and indexing in Japanese. He observes that Japan has relatively few public libraries, and that the apparent widespread availability of books and magazines and newspapers is quite deceptive, since most of those are comic books and sports- or scandal-mongering tabloids. He identifies a key cultural issue: "... the Japanese attachment to kanji is intimately tied to the shared experience of mastering a complex body of knowledge that defines group membership. Whether kanji facilitate communication or not is a secondary consideration."

The real moral of Unger's book is perhaps stated at the end of his Introduction: "The Japanese have no monopoly on woolly thinking. If we cannot see how covert cultural biases interfere with the advance of presumably objective science in another, markedly different culture, how can we hope to diagnose our own failings?"

So, stepping back and coming home, let's ask what are the most significant sources of inefficiency in our society? The non-metric system of weights and measures (in the US)
is a problem; so is the non-decimal system of timekeeping (clocks and calendars). English spelling is non-phonetic, and many verb conjugations are irregular. Our postal service is arguably a joke; the banking and finance sectors are similarly silly. Are these frictional forces worth fixing?

Perhaps a much larger effect to ponder is the widespread squandering of human intelligence --- due to, among other things:

Can we do something about these?

Friday, January 19, 2001 at 07:24:30 (EST) = 2001-01-19

TopicThinking - TopicSociety - TopicLanguage

(correlates: NegativeHelp, Comments on Kubota Logo Mystery, OurStonehenge, ...)