Keith Hutchinson of the Huffington Post recently discussed an approach being used by Deb Roy to discover what Big Data can teach us about language. Hutchinson writes, “Philosophers and scientists have long wondered how human knowledge is acquired and organized. One area of specific interest concerns how we come to understand a word and both its relation to a physical referent in the world (i.e., referential meaning) and its relation to other words (i.e., sense meaning). In this regard, large scale projects like Deb Roy’s are becoming increasingly helpful. Professor Deb Roy’s study is a great example of how large-scale databases can answer important questions beyond those obtainable from standard experiments.”

He goes on, “As I see it, the real advantage of Deb Roy’s approach over current approaches is its focus on tracking the development of a single individual over time. This can demonstrate the how and why of associations that presumably drives the development of semantic knowledge. Professor Roy’s example for ‘water’ demonstrates how this database can track referential learning through the investigation of ‘word landscapes’ (i.e., the location in which words are most commonly used). As expected, our knowledge of a word usually incorporates both the environment in which it’s located and the function for which it’s used. Perhaps a more useful approach would be to examine sense relations with Dr. Roy’s model and even the interaction of referential and sense relations.”

Read more and watch the TED Talk this story is based on here.

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