Friday, 20 May 2011

Robots invent a language

IEEE Spectrum describes an interesting experiment in artificial intelligence and linguistics. Two robots, equipped with microphones and loudspeakers to talk to each other, managed to create a set of words useful for navigating their environment.

I think it would be interesting to extend this experiment to see if it could give insight into how language evolves. Starting with a larger population of robots, you could give them time to make up a language, and then start deleting the memories of individual robots at intervals. In real life, languages have to be continually relearned by sucessive generations of speakers, and this is probably part of the reason why the undergo changes. It would be possible to vary the size of the population and the rate of deletions to see what influence these might have, and also to add varying amounts of background noise.

Mind you, to give a real insight into the development of human language, you might want to give the robots more complex tasks to do than simply finding their way around, so that they would have to invent a grammar to express their meaning. Then you would be seeing how language might develop in a mind fundamentally unlike a humans. There's been considerable debate amongst linguists about how many of the constraints on human languages are hard-wired into the human brain, and how many are simply a result of circumstance, and what can evolve from what already exists.