02 Aug What is a Set: Multiple Meanings in Digital Lingo
What is the meaning of “bump” or “set” or “spike”? Polysemy means multiple meanings, or semantic representations for a single word or phrase. In digital Lingo, that is ones and zeros, we have the ultimate example of minimal symbolic diversity delivering infinite possible meanings. Fortunately human languages give you more than two choices of symbols, so even complex concepts can be articulated in short order.
Activation in the brain of the volleyball player shown in this image is doing many things at once: sending instructions from the cerebellum, the brain’s motor control center, to the muscles that she uses to make a perfect play, processing visual cues about the location of the moving ball, the net and the players on both sides to the net, and in her language centers, she’s thinking the word “set”. Her muscular, visual and other brain processes are mostly focused on that one symbolic word that is almost completely unambiguous to this person in this moment. Context clarifies many things.
A person who is unfamiliar with volleyball or its strategy may not understand the significance of the word set, and its significance in the mind of the woman pictured here. In fact, there are many areas of knowledge that use common words in very specific ways. For example, if the word “bridge” were applied to a human, it may apply to the nose, something in the mouth, a part of the foot, or any number of microscopic components that make up the body.
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However, polysemy in human language creates ambiguity, and makes understanding more difficult. Without context, all is lost. Ambiguity is ubiquitous in all languages, but English may be the worst for words with multiple meanings (and vice-versa). The word “set” in English is so ambiguous that I challenge you to name all its meanings and the contexts in which they apply. In the thesaurus page shown below, 46 synonyms are shown for one “word sense” of set: meaning “decided”.
Polysemy is not the only source of ambiguity. Anaphora, metaphor and figurative speech, sarcasm and subtext, among many other communication phenomena add to the challenge of understanding meaning. So the system that truly communicates on a level with humans needs to take these into account. To do so it needs context.
We plan to launch a game and crowd-sourcing effort. The game will be for players to demonstrate their knowledge and teach our ontology words and phrases with a meaning and a context for each. There will be extra points when a player teaches the ontology words and phrases with multiple meanings. Players that can describe the difference in meaning for a word or phrase in two different contexts will teach our system valuable knowledge and qualify for cool prizes.
If you chose “set” as your word, and “basketball” and “volleyball” as your two contexts, how does the meaning change?
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