The great (but valuable) unknown: what is semantics?
Whether it’s artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, today’s most innovative technologies are working to take advantage—through understanding, predicting or replication—of human language and its by products to create applications that are increasingly innovative and intelligent. Teaching a computer to really understand human communication starts not with matching words based on how they appear, but on understanding the meaning of words; therefore, it starts with semantics.
What is semantics? If you Google “semantics”, you’ll find over 19 million results. Without getting too technical or academic, let’s look at a few examples that explains what semantics is, and how we apply it in understanding information.
What is semantics?
We can start by thinking of semantics as the “magic” that happens when people communicate and, most importantly, when they understand each other. This magic is actually a combination of being able to understand words and the relationships between words and phrases, along with our general knowledge and acquired experience using them. As adults, we no longer have to think about what the majority of certain words mean, we just innately know what they are, when to use them, how to apply them and who to use them with.
What is semantics? Context
For example, in a job interview, you (ideally) wouldn’t greet your potential employer by saying, “What’s up?” Our social conditioning tells us that we would only use such language in a specific social context (i.e. with friends or family). Based on our exposure to many different contexts, we have come to know what to expect and what people expect from us in various situations.
So, how do we know which words to put together to best convey our wishes, feelings, questions, and intent? And how do we know what others’ wishes, feelings, questions and intent mean?
What is semantics? Ingredients + procedure
One way to think about what semantics is…is as a recipe where ingredients + procedure = the dish you’re trying to make. The end result means that you don’t actually taste each individual ingredient bu the product of the combination of the ingredients. With a cake recipe, words are the ingredients, the rules of sentence structure are the instructions and the combination of them is the cake itself.
What is semantics? More than words
Similarly, language is composed of idiomatic expressions, slang and abbreviations that often makes it difficult to understand if you lack the contextual knowledge. Back to our recipe example, “it’s a piece of cake” may not literally refer to cake, but to something else entirely. These nuances can confuse both people and technology, especially in the application of question answering. For example, the question “what time is the match?” has a variety of answers (no matter what time it is): It’s at 4.15; it’s at a quarter past four; it’s just after 4 p.m.; it’s at 15 after 4, etc.
Comprehension is not just a matter of words. Words are the symbols that we use to refer to things and words are also a means for conveying something. But, words alone can’t explain what semantics is. In order to fully understand other human beings we must rely on our innate capability to semantically discern and decipher.
What is semantics? Understanding intention
But, what if we don’t use words at all? Messages can be conveyed using facial expressions, posture, sounds (like groaning or sighing) and even via creative expression, such as through a work of art.
When we look at the Mona Lisa, for example, almost everyone would agree that it is a representation of a lady, but does it also mean that we understand the painter’s intentions? Unfortunately, no. The same thing happens with words; even if you have a rich vocabulary and vast worldwide knowledge, you can still misunderstand or misinterpret language.
To understand a work of art, you need to combine a number of types of knowledge and experience, including your subjective opinion, to come up with an interpretation. In the Mona Lisa, you might notice how her hands are folded, her smile (or is it a smirk?), but also the time period in which it was painted and where the artist was at the time he painted it–in other words, the painting’s context.
Similarly, when you consider words within a context you are able to understand both their meaning and the message -what they are trying to convey…That’s semantics!