The Null Device

Never Ending Language Learner

Researchers at CMU write a program that learns facts by reading the web; hilarity ensues:
NELL also judges the facts it finds, promoting some of them to the higher category of “beliefs” if they come from a single trusted source, or if they come from multiple sources that are less reliable. According to the researchers, “More than half of the beliefs were promoted based on evidence from multiple [i.e., less reliable] sources,” making NELL more of a rumor mill than a trusted source. And once NELL promotes a fact to a belief, it stays a belief: “In our current implementation, once a candidate fact is promoted as a belief, it is never demoted,” a process that sounds more like religion than science.
Sometimes NELL makes mistakes: the computer incorrectly labeled “right posterior” as a body part. NELL proved smart enough to call ketchup a condiment, not a vegetable, a mislabeling that we owe to the “great communicator,” Ronald Regan. But its human handlers had to tell NELL that Klingon is not an ethnic group, despite the fact that many earthlings think it is. Alex Trebek would be happy to know that, unlike Sean Connery, NELL has no trouble classifying therapists as a “profession,” but the computer trips up on the rapists, which it thinks could possibly be “awardtrophytournament” (confidence level, 50%).
Told by its programmers that Risk is a board game, NELL predicts with 91.4% confidence that security risk is also a board game. NELL knows that a number is a character, but then incorrectly classifies the plural, numbers, as a character trait (93.8% confidence). The computer is also 99.9% confident that business is an academic field, which may be reassuring to those in the b-school if not to those small business owners worrying about the continuation of the Bush tax cuts.

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