Friday, May 27, 2011

why are spy researchers building a metaphor program?

The Atlantic | A small research arm of the U.S. government's intelligence establishment wants to understand how speakers of Farsi, Russian, English, and Spanish see the world by building software that automatically evaluates their use of metaphors.

That's right, metaphors, like Shakespeare's famous line, "All the world's a stage," or more subtly, "The darkness pressed in on all sides." Every speaker in every language in the world uses them effortlessly, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity wants know how what we say reflects our worldviews. They call it The Metaphor Program, and it is a unique effort within the government to probe how a people's language reveals their mindset.

"The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture," declared an open solicitation for researchers released last week. A spokesperson for IARPA declined to comment at the time.

IARPA wants some computer scientists with experience in processing language in big chunks to come up with methods of pulling out a culture's relationship with particular concepts."They really are trying to get at what people think using how they talk," Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told me. Bergen is one of a dozen or so lead researchers who are expected to vie for a research grant that could be worth tens of millions of dollars over five years, if the team scan show progress towards automatically tagging and processing metaphors across languages.

"IARPA grants are big," said Jennifer Carter of Applied Research Associates, a 1,600-strong research company that may throw its hat in the Metaphor ring after winning a lead research spot in a separate IARPA solicitation. While no one knows the precise value of the rewards of the IARPA grants and the contracts are believed to vary widely, they tend to support several large teams of multidisciplinary researchers, Carter said. The awards, which would initially go to several teams, could range into the five digits annually. "Generally what happens... there will be a 'downselect' each year, so maybe only one team will get money for the whole program," she said.*

All this to say: The Metaphor Program may represent a nine-figure investment by the government in understanding how people use language. But that's because metaphor studies aren't light or frilly and IARPA isn't afraid of taking on unusual sounding projects if they think they might help intelligence analysts sort through and decode the tremendous amounts of data pouring into their minds.

In a presentation to prospective research "performers," as they're known, The Metaphor Program's manager, Heather McCallum-Bayliss gave the following example of the power of metaphors in political discussions. Her slide reads:
Metaphors shape how people think about complex topics and can influence beliefs. A study presented participants with a report on crime in a city; they were asked how crime should be addressed in the city. The report contained statistics, including crime and murder rates, as well as one of two metaphors, CRIME AS A WILD BEAST or CRIME AS A VIRUS. The participants were influenced by the embedded metaphor...
McCallum-Bayliss appears to be referring to a 2011 paper published in the PLoS ONE, "Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," lead authored by Stanford's Paul Thibodeau. In that case, if people were given the crime-as-a-virus framing, they were more likely to suggest social reform and less likely to suggest more law enforcement or harsher punishments for criminals. The differences generated by the metaphor alternatives were "were larger than those that exist between Democrats and Republicans, or between men and women," the study authors noted. Fist tap Dale.

9 comments:

Big Don said...

A more fertile focus for this type of research (crime and social reform mentioned in post)  might be a bit closer to home...
[Urban Dictionary excerpt]
ebonic_plagueThe seepage of c**nisms from ghetto-speak into english language and their acceptance as a valid means of communication outside of ghettos.Doan dis me 'bout how ma gums be flappin' n**ga, I bust a cap in yo ass. 'Sides it ain' ma fault, Ah done gots dat ebonic plague, yo...!!

Tom said...

I vote for perm ban.

Dale Asberry said...

Lol, Tom, every village has it's idiot.

nanakwame said...

the metaphoric frame - sounds like a great study. Have you read thoughts on why Afro-Americans took to Twitter? Interesting - I would include Yiddish in the same language trope of Afroam - why entertainment is so powerful in USA - those witty quips

Big Don said...

The truth is not always a pleasant thing.  BD is just the messenger...

Tom said...

Dale, good point.  BD helps lower the bar for the rest of us!

Dale Asberry said...

And he can be used as an example to the children for the dangers of not using protection!

CNu said...

rotflmbao

BD's lip just poked out about the Scientific American article.The nerve of those good-for-nothing race-traitors reducing his religion to a pile of feebly smoking, magical-thinking rubbish....,

CNu said...

I hereby ban all perms. 

The minute BD shows up tryna mack an Al Sharpton perm, his monkey tail is out of here for good....,