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Four questions for… Luc Steels

A guest of the New Alphabet Opening Days at HKW (Jan 10-13) Belgian AI scientist and opera composer Luc Steels presents his lecture "Language is a Slippery Thing" on January 12, 3:30pm, exploring the shiftiness of language

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The Binary System (1697). Courtesy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek

It’s as simple as A, B, C. Or is it? The New Alphabet Opening Days at HKW (Jan 10-13) tackles systems of knowledge, from dialects to DNA data, AI technology to social media through performance, film, concerts and lectures. Belgian AI scientist and opera composer Luc Steels presents his lecture Language is a Slippery Thing on January 12, 3:30pm, exploring the shiftiness of language, the effect of social media and AI, and how in a post-truth world, we’re at risk of losing language as a meaningful way to communicate.

How are AI and social media changing our use of language? 

Well, it’s quite clear there are many changes, but let me just focus on one, which is the way that opinions are formed, communicated and dissimilated. The hidden role of AI algorithms in this is that they amplify them . This has the negative effect of polarisation, and the spreading of disinformation and fake news. These are all things that I view as worrisome. It’s also changing the language we use, and the way we talk with each other: it becomes much more direct, short, emotional and manipulative. The impact of all this on democracy, and the way that we form opinions, is something that worries me  

What about the real world? How is AI and social media changing how we interact there?

Well, if you look at the Brexit developments at the moment, for example, you can see it in the way politicians are being attacked verbally, in a very direct and brutal way. Also, if you look at what is happening at the moment in France, in the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests: this has been pretty much driven by social media, and the language which is used to talk about it. These are phenomena we see at the moment which, in my opinion, are strongly impacted by communication technology .   

How do we stop this hollowing out of language? How do we keep it meaningful?

The first step is awareness of the problem. Then we can figure out why these algorithms have this particular effect, and can try to come up with new algorithms that do not have this impact. There needs to be a recognition of how these behaviours are being used, by Trump for example, and an understanding that the use of this media is dangerous. So there is no simple fix. AI is not going to be able to stop fake news, because the current state of the art technology doesn’t allow us to do that. But we can think about why the algorithms that are used today are having this kind of effect.  

How will your lecture, Language is a Slippery Thing, explore this?

My talk is partly about what technology we can develop, and the kind of research we need to do to create AI where meaning is taken into account. The slippery thing about language is that its fragile. You can easily lie with language. It ’s different from animal communication. Their signs, alarm calls – these are all honest signals. But with language we can say anything, and it ’ s very dangerous because the use of language to manipulate is becoming so common – we are actually destroying language as a vehicle for trustworthy conversation. The problem with these algorithms today is that they are not able to deal with meaning.

The New Alphabet Opening Days, Luc Steels: Language is a Slippery Thing, Sat, Jun 12, 15:30 | HKW, Tiergarten