August 11, 2014 AT 11:00 am

This computer knows when “literally” isn’t literal

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Via Discover.

Separating literal from figurative speech is actually quite complicated. A proper interpretation of a statement depends on shared knowledge between speaker and listener, the ease of communication and knowledge of a speaker’s intentions. It’s relatively easy for humans to do this in an instant, but computational models aren’t as adept at identifying non-literal speech.

Researchers from Stanford and MIT set out to create a program that could. They began by asking 340 individuals, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to determine whether a series of statements were literal or hyperbolical. The statements described the prices of an electric kettle, a watch and a laptop. For example, “The laptop cost ten thousand dollars.”

The results seemed intuitive: A statement claiming the kettle cost $10,000 was viewed as hyperbolic, but a price tag of $50 was interpreted as a literal statement. Interestingly, when the number was precise, like $51 or $1,001, participants were more likely to view those statements as literal. In other words, round numbers led to fuzzy interpretations.

The researchers then used this data to build a computational model that took into account a) how near the price was to a reasonable price, b) whether the number given was precise or fuzzy, and c) how big the number was (prices that are higher being deemed more likely to be exaggerations).

Read more.


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