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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zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
6/16/2014 | 12:43:43 PM
Re: Sarcasm Detector Wanted
There's a famous notion about how computers can't play the traditional Japanese game of Go. Supposedly, it's not because the game is too complicated, but because it's too simple. You can place a piece anywhere on the board, at any time. Apparently, that's too little complexity for any computer to derive a winning strategy based on. Now, I have no idea if that anecdote is true or not (don't there exist Go video games?), but I think it's very relevant to the discussion at hand. At a certain point, do we run up against a wall of what computers simply can't do? Or are there endless possibilities, some of which we just haven't unlocked yet?

Maybe the secret service needs to go back a couple of steps and get a human sarcasm detector first, though. Sitting out in front of your grandfather's house for a letter he sent years ago, especially considering his age at the time, was more or less a waste of taxpayer dollars. We ought to work on automated criminal detection in the sense that the volume of tweet (etc.) are too much for humans to read... but we still ought to have a system of humans with common sense to back it up. The debacle with the NYPD twitter campaign you wrote about back on E2 is a great example of this problem and how it goes both ways. Anyway, here's to four more years of Geekend!
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Moderator
6/15/2014 | 8:37:00 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
Believe it or not, Siri is kind of witty.
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
6/13/2014 | 3:49:49 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
Dave it would be funny, but I would started worried....
SaneIT
IW Pick
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/13/2014 | 7:53:05 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
You mean like if I had taken "Clippy" to be sarcastic, which I did quite often.  "I see you're trying to type a letter."  
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/12/2014 | 6:30:19 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@Thomas- I don't know. I think I'd be entertained by the first time my computer mocked me for my browser history. :)
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
6/12/2014 | 4:39:53 PM
Re: Sadly we do need this
>Somehting I wish I would have mentioned in the article-- you know what comes after a sarcasm detector, right? A sarcasm GENERATOR.

As if we needed more of it.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/12/2014 | 11:49:39 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@SaneIT- You are right. I suspect when the guy said, "I'm going out on the wing" someone said, "I'm going to sprout wings and fly out there instead." :)

And you are right. That's exactly why we need one. For better or worse we're in this together now so we better learn to understand each other.

Somehting I wish I would have mentioned in the article-- you know what comes after a sarcasm detector, right? A sarcasm GENERATOR.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/12/2014 | 7:17:48 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
That is an amazing story and yes as you noted this is done within the rules.  I'm sure there was a fair amount of sarcasm going during the talk about walking out on a wing too.  I know we are a little off subject but this is one of the things I think AIs will have to overcome when dealing with humans.  When we get sarcastic and they take everything literally problems will only get worse.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/11/2014 | 11:54:50 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@SaneIT- I was flipping channels yesterday and saw a story about a WWII bomber co-pilot. He had hit his mazx number of missions and didn't have to fly at all but he decided to fly a mission with his crew anyway despite the fact that his first son was being born that night. During the mission, his plane was hit and the wing was on fire. 

He decided to...get this...attach himself to a parachute and have the crew hold the parachute end while he CLIMBED ON TO THE WING with a fire extinguisher and put out the flames. He somehow succeeded at this despite being at 20,000 ft and going 180 miles per hour. But just as he put the fire out, a fighter plane shot at the bomber again, setting it on fire again and wounding the guy on the wing and he flew off of it. The crew held on while he was DANGLING OFF THE PLANE for several minutes before deciding he must be dead and they let go.

As he fell, his parachute CAUGHT ON FIRE. And he fell 20,000 feet with a burning parachute, but somehow survived the fall with two broken legs and several bullet wounds.

He was paraded through a German town and sent to a prison camp. He tried to excape twice before finally getting away.

When he got back to England, they told him he was getting England's highest medal. And his response was "What for?"

No one would believe that if they made it a movie. And yet that seems more heroic and more within the chain of command than anything I ever see in Hollywood. Hopefully there are enough of those stories that get told during training that it counteracts Hollywood.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/11/2014 | 7:20:29 AM
Re: Sadly we do need this
@David, I would tend to believe that those who are enlisted or are employed by the intelligence agencies understand the chain of command and that the majority follow it but part of me sees movies, games, stories where the good soldier turns into a great hero only after breaking out of that mold.  This makes me wonder how often that really happens, not that they become great heroes but that they try to break away because they think that will make them great.
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