US sets $1.4M to get unique metaphor-recognizing software system humming

Illinois Institute of Technology, MIT, Georgetown University part of team

An innovative project, called Autonomous Dynamic Analysis of Metaphor and Analogy, or ADAMA, aims to build a software system that can automatically analyze metaphorical speech in five different languages by analyzing huge quantities of online data got off the ground this week when the U.S. Army Research Laboratory awarded a $1.4 million contract to the team conducting the research.

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The research is backed by the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which develops high-risk, reward research projects for the government, and is intended to build a repository of speech metaphors from American/English Iranian Farsi, Mexican Spanish and Russian speakers.  ADAMA could have immediate applications in forensics, intelligence analysis, business intelligence, sociological research and communication studies, researchers stated.

From IARPA:  "Metaphors have been known since Aristotle as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (for example: The world is a stage; Time is money). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them," IARPA says.

One of the key goals of the program is to get at the deeper meanings found in metaphoric and figurative language to better understand messages and intentions of people from communities all over the world, said Shlomo Argamon an associate professor of Computer Science with the Illinois Institute of Technology who is heading up the research team.  That team includes researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University; Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

Argamon says the team will develop software systems to identify, access and analyze large amounts of online documents - like the American National Corpus, which a huge electronic collection of American English -- in several languages. Psychological and cultural experts will also evaluate the results to improve the accuracy and richness of the resulting metaphor collection.

"On a very basic level we want to understand the different ways different word or phrases are interpreted in different language, for example, of I call someone a 'shark' in American/English that could mean they are powerful with great vision but in Iranian Farsi, that same term means smooth-skinned, effeminate, weak - dramatically different meaning," Argamon said.  "We will develop technology that can identify such metaphorical speech to get a much better understanding of the way people think about things."

Such language systems are a hot research topic these days. 

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While not looking at metaphorical speech, IARPA's counterpart, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will this month detail the union of advanced technologies from artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, machine learning, natural-language fields it hopes to bring together to build an automated system that will let analysts and others better grasp meanings from large volumes of text documents.

From DARPA: "Automated, deep natural-language understanding technology may hold a solution for more efficiently processing text information. When processed at its most basic level without ingrained cultural filters, language offers the key to understanding connections in text that might not be readily apparent to humans. Sophisticated artificial intelligence of this nature has the potential to enable defense analysts to efficiently investigate orders of magnitude more documents so they can discover implicitly expressed, actionable information contained within them."

In addition, last year IARPA awarded Raytheon BBN Technologies $3 million to explore new methods of modeling what it calls the brain's sensemaking ability. The research could have commercial and military benefits, such as helping the intelligence community analyze fast-moving battlefield video, audio, and text data quickly and accurately, IARPA stated.

According to IARPA, sensemaking refers to the process by which humans are able to generate explanations for data that are otherwise sparse, noisy, and uncertain.  It is a core cognitive ability that is central to the work of intelligence analysts, IARPA says. Yet despite its importance, sensemaking remains a poorly understood phenomenon.

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