I recently wrote about ‘What is pragmatics?’, but perhaps it’s best explained by what it isn’t. I think pragmatics is probably why this conversation doesn’t work. But what makes it go awry – or more specifically, what is it that this robot can’t do?
Click here to watch the video and enjoy!
I made such a poor job of this post the first time, I thought I’d better add a big PS and have another go!
A lot of the meanings we transmit and receive in conversation are hidden or secret because they’re not decipherable from the just words we use. They get transferred via context and shared understandings about what’s relevant and appropriate. Grammar and semantics are important –
really important – but they have their limits. And a great place to see where the limits lie is robots.
By robots I mean the answerphone machines that greet us and try to decipher where to route us when we call large companies, and the avatars we meet around the web like IKEA’s Anna, and robots like the one in the video above. These robots often have us pulling our hair out, crying out for an ‘agent’, ‘operator’, representative’, ‘human being’ or whatever. But actually, if you think about it, human beings often have us pulling our hair out too.
And robots are getting pretty sophisticated these days, Speech recognition software has come on a bundle and a lot of grammar and semantics is programmable. But while they can recognize the words, they only work up to a point. I reckon they have mostly been programmed for grammar and semantics – because they are the easy things to program. If they aren’t programmed to grasp the hidden meanings we work with, they’ll never pass the Turing test. Use a metaphor, for example, and things are likely to go caput.
So I was thinking that’s what pragmatics is about: the study of the secret meanings. And so what pragmatics isn’t about is the study of the stuff that that robot in the video has been programmed with.