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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Metaphors and National Defense

In a post last week, I discussed a new book about metaphors—their ubiquity, complexity, and importance in thought and communication. Apparently, US intelligence personnel have become quite interested in metaphors as well. A colleague recently pointed me to an article by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, which details the The Metaphor Program, a project of the government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

According to the program's website, "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." The program, through grants to computer scientists and linguists, seeks to develop computer algorithms that can identify conceptual metaphors used by those who may seek to harm the US. Such an algorithm could be deployed to the corners of the Internet and perform the work of an army of intelligence officers. To be effective, such an algorithm would need to be exceptionally knowledgeable. "What IARPA's project calls for is the deployment of spy resources against an entire language," Madrigal notes. "Where you or I might parse a sentence, this project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people."

The complexity of human language and culture makes developing such an algorithm a great challenge. Metaphorical language can change—what would it have meant in 1980 to surf the information superhighway?—and is highly contextual. Madrigal explores this complexity:
While some of the underlying structures of the metaphors—the conceptual categories—are near universal (e.g. Happy Is Up), there are many variations in their range, elaboration, and emphasis. And, of course, not every category is universal. For example, Kövecses points to a special conceptual category in Japanese centered around the hara, or belly, "Anger Is (In The) Hara." In Zulu, one finds an important category, "Anger Is (Understood As Being) In the Heart," which would be rare in English. Alternatively, while many cultures conceive of anger as a hot fluid in a container, it's in English that we "blow off steam," a turn of phrase that wouldn't make sense in Zulu.
The Metaphor Program assumes, Madrigal notes, that the metaphors someone uses can tell us a great deal about that person's worldview—perhaps more than the person says in plain language. The applications for a machine that can detect and analyze metaphors, then, extend well beyond national security. The fruits of The Metaphor Program will help advance the cause of artificial intelligence in many domains.

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