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The hunt for the best computer language

Our language is adapted to the context in which we humans communicate. But computers ‘think’ differently. What is the optimal form of a language for human-machine communication? Tessa Verhoef is trying to find the answer.

This article previously appeared in Leidraad, our free alumni magazine (in Dutch).

In the world of artificial intelligence (AI) a computer that can understand language is the holy grail. But that grail is a long way away: Google or Siri don’t understand a thing and you can’t converse with them either. To understand a language, an algorithm must, like us, learn by interacting with others. This interaction interests Tessa Verhoef no end.

Playful experiments

Verhoef likes unconventional, often playful experiments. In one she got people to learn a new kind of language and then teach this to others, communicating not with words but with a swanee whistle. She applies the insights from her experiments to AI systems, thus allowing for the natural development of a communication system between machines.

Festival as lab

Verhoef also got people to relay stories to one another at Lowlands. ‘I wanted to find out which elements from a story are lost and which ones are reinforced if it is passed on a few times. This information is important if you want to teach an algorithm to detect misinformation, for instance. There are lots of dangerous fake stories about coronavirus. Information from a telephone game can help train AI systems to identify stories that may be fake.’

Learning by building

A useful AI system is not even her prime goal. Verhoef is driven by a fundamental interest in social interaction. ‘What I do is learning by building. We stick all the knowledge that we have into an AI system, and if we see that it doesn’t work, we know that we don’t understand everything yet.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout

More about research at Lowlands

Conducting experiments next to the huge speakers of the Alpha Stage at Lowlands. This was reality for researchers Max van Duijn and Tessa Verhoef in 2019, and they loved it. ‘Yesterday evening we were covered in mud.’ Read the report.

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