Understanding Metaphors

People in every culture use metaphors and other figurative language to express themselves.  For example, in English we say “he is a pig” to indicate someone who is gluttonous or slovenly. What does it mean that we say “pig” instead of, say, “dog?” What does our use of that particular metaphor say about us as a culture?  Does it say anything at all?

The US government believes that it does. According to The Atlantic, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity is giving out grants as part of a program to “understand how speakers of Farsi, Russian, English, and Spanish see the world by building software that automatically evaluates their use of metaphors.”

The grants could total in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The idea behind the investment is that if you can understand the metaphors people use and how those metaphors affect the way they perceive the world, you can alter the way you present your ideas and proposals so that they are more likely to be accepted. Building a database of metaphors and their meanings also makes it easier to use computers to accurately parse written texts, which is important since the US has a perennial shortage of human translators in certain languages.

However, IAPRA wants more than just a database of metaphors- it also wants to use computers to uncover what these metaphors say about the people who use them. Cognitive linguists devote entire academic careers to this very subject. Are they trying to get a machine to do a human’s job?

Benjamin Bergen of the University of California at San Diego told the Atlantic that might be the case:

“If you think about other sorts of automation of language processing, there are right answers. In speech recognition, you know what the word should be. So you can do statistical learning. You use humans, tag up a corpus and then run some machine learning algorithms on that. Unfortunately, here, we don’t know what the right answers are.”

If the project is eventually successful, it could have both positive and negative implications. A better understanding of other cultures is generally a good thing, especially when it comes to formulating foreign policy. However, there are obviously other, creepier and less ethical uses for such technology, like creating more effective propaganda and spying on citizens. Indeed, the Atlantic article quotes George Lakoff, co-author of the book Metaphors We Live By,asking a very important question:

“Are they going to use it wisely? Because using it to detect terrorists is not a bad idea, but then the question is: Are they going to use it to spy on us?”