Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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6/6/2014
07:00 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Sarcasm Detector Wanted

US Secret Service wants a bucket for those times you are dripping with sarcasm.

Top 10 Secret Reasons Microsoft CEO Ballmer Retired
Top 10 Secret Reasons Microsoft CEO Ballmer Retired
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Welcome to my first Geekend on InformationWeek.com. I wrote this weekly column for three and a half years on EnterpriseEfficiency.com, and now that I'm bringing it to InformationWeek, I'll repeat what I wrote in my very first Geekend:

Every Friday I'm going to talk about stuff I love -- gadgets, games, movies, and the people who make them -- and I'm not going to worry about the enterprise. Just once a week. One post, for a little bit of fun so we can enter the weekend on a high note.

I hope the InformationWeek audience enjoys my little jaunt through the geekier side of life as much as I do.

[How's your company's geek:jock ratio? Read Geeks Versus Jocks: CIOs, Beware Your Culture.]

Speaking of geek life, the US Secret Service is making an interesting jaunt into natural language processing by asking people to make a sarcasm detector. Here's an intercepted video of an early test:

You can see they're still working on it. But seriously, the Secret Service really does want its own social media monitoring software (it uses FEMA's now), and among the criteria -- buried among other humorous requirements, like its needing to be compatible with Internet Explorer 8 -- is the need to detect sarcasm.

Why would anyone need to do that on Twitter? Isn't Twitter the most sincere place on Earth?

As much as I want to make fun of the government's inability to detect humor of any kind, there's a real need here. You know those signs at the airport that say, "All jokes about bombs will be taken seriously"? That's Twitter for the Secret Service. How do they know the difference between a tweet that says, "I want to kill the president over that decision" and "I want to KILL the president over that decision"?

Allow me to share a personal story of this problem before social media even existed. My grandfather was a Navy veteran and literally would have taken a bullet for any US president, regardless of party. But he also considered it important to write letters to express his dissent. Once he wrote a letter to President Reagan (whom he loved) protesting something Reagan was doing with veterans' benefits. He wrote: "A man ought to be shot for thinking like that..."

Uh oh. Somewhere in Washington, a little file was created. And several years later, when Reagan was visiting my grandfather's hometown, he got a knock on the door. The Secret Service agents told my grandmother they'd be outside the house until the president left. My grandfather was confined to his chair because of a stroke, and when my mother informed the agents, they went in, politely talked with my grandfather, and left.

But imagine this encounter on the scale of Twitter. Not just a few thousand angry letters, but 500 million tweets per day, plus Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and countless other social forums. And they aren't all hashtagged #Iwanttokillthepresident #thisisnojoke. How do you tell the difference? How do you even read them all?

So good for the Secret Service, but this is a tall order. How do you teach a computer something that not all people are good at?

We're getting surprisingly close (and yet still so far away), with teaching computers about regular humor. We've even got them writing jokes like this one: "What do you get when you combine a fragrance with an actor? A smell Gibson." That at least resembles a joke. But how do you teach sarcasm, which requires an understanding of the intent

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:30:17 PM
Re: Gov vs Humor
There is hope for the future of funny in the government (at least for today).

@CIA

"We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."


@Michelle- That is hilarious. Good for the CIA. I wonder how many contractors, vendors, and consultants it took to do that? But seriously, am I the only one uncomfortable with the idea of the CIA having a Twitter account?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:27:52 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@snunyc- funny enough, I like exercising my own BS detector. But I HATE when I don't get sarcasm and look like a fool.

That said, it would be nice if Google, Facebook, or someone else invented a plug-in that could put "We know this to be not factual" tags on articles, pictures, etc that infect the internet.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 3:12:40 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
Even if the government realizes it can't be done, you know who can do it? Facebook and Twitter.

 


Eh, I would give Google the nod on figuring out how to do it before Facebook and Twitter.


@progman2000- I see that. google has a lot of skill in natural language processing. But I think FB and Twitter have the leg up on the number of free sarcastic posts they can experiment on. :)

I guess my real question is-- what's in it for Google to solve this?
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
6/9/2014 | 1:23:10 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
The sarcasm dtector really is needed in any kind of social media analysis. There is a big difference between really and REALLY? While we perform lots of anyalysis on social media sentiment the accuracy still is not there. I wish the government the best of luck but with our language evolving everyday,( who knew what cra cra was 5 years ago) it is a very tall order. They may get closer but I doubt they will ever crack the code completely.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 1:16:43 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@jastro- We definitely need this, if only to help build our new robot overlords. What would an overlord be if it didn't understand how to be sarcastic?

I think this a very fascinating field and you are right that we've been working on this a long time. Social media gives us the chance for millions and millions of new "test" interactions that can be automatic read and processed at incredible speeds by computers. It is like it was designed just to teach computers how to learn our language.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/9/2014 | 1:13:13 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
My first thought was wondering how often our government hears "great job on that one guys" and takes it as a compliment rather than sarcasm.


@SaneIT- Ha! Yeah, that's certainly the way it goes down in every Bruce Willis movie. :)
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/9/2014 | 7:13:44 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
Honestly I believe this happens quite often.  How many times have you heard about a goverment plan and you're wondering if they are serious or you hear them laying out the framework and it sounds like the sterotypical over budget project that is going to under deliver.  I can't help but think sometimes that they hear read suggestion cards and they read the sarcastic ones as good advice.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
6/8/2014 | 9:53:51 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@Technocratic ooh, a variation on "if a tree falls ..." "if sarcasm is expressed but nobody gets it, does it still count as sarcasm?"
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 7:34:25 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@Ariella   Your discussion brings up another interesting  question - Is Sarcasm, still Sarcasm if the other person (s) do(es) not get the verbal jab ?    I guess it still is actually.

But I can understand the debate.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2014 | 7:27:32 PM
Re: Sarcasm at Work
@S.N   Some interesting questions   I consider sarcasm to be a part of human nature, usually carried out in an mean spirited way,  That is not to say all sarcasm need be mean spirited.

When used with maturity it can occasionally be helpful in getting an otherwise unheard point across.
<<   <   Page 4 / 7   >   >>
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