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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shortcuts in spelling

After Megan's departure, things settled down to their regular routine. Bow was satisfied. I was spending my regular twelve hours in the pen with him, and he gave no trouble, offered no resistance, but behaved like a perfect little gentleman.

There was a carnival in the small town closest to us, and Sword and I went there, two nights in a row. Each night, without making any appointment in advance, Sword spotted a friend, and the two of them would go on all the rides together, chattering away to each other as they spun around or were tossed about on a miniature roller coaster. Each time, I made conversation with the mother of Sword's friend, but the small talk we exchanged could not include: I have a little chimp boy at home who can spell and speak in complete sentences, but I just can't get him to behave. In both cases, the other mothers knew about Bow and even inquired about him, but the sorts of answers I gave were about the small stuff, and not about the fact that he has language.

Something really enormous has happened here, but because the breakthrough occurred three years ago, and got no acknowledgment, we tend to talk about other things. Somebody learns to talk or to spell only once in a lifetime, and after a while those things become routine, and we take no notice of them anymore.

On Sunday, we had a visit from a fellow primatologist. She was one of the professors who had recommended Megan, and she knew all about Megan's progress with Bow. Megan had emailed her telling of how at first Bow was reluctant to speak to her, then used single words, and finally ended up using full sentences with her. She even related how Bow had told her he was "lucky".  And then, of course, she also told of how Bow had been mean to her, and why she decided not to stay.

Bow liked the primatologist, and played chase with her through the glass. After she left, he said that she was good and that he hoped she would come again.

Then on Monday, Lawrence came, and there was a sort of mini-breakthrough on the touchscreen. For the  longest time, Bow hasn't said a single thing using his computer, preferring to break the chopsticks rather than point at letters. But yesterday, Lawrence was just sitting there with Bow, and he decided to play with the touchscreen himself. There was no plan or intent, involved. He just spelled "b-o-w", and the computer pronounced it wrong, as if it were a command to bow down to someone. (I've known for a long time that it mispronounces Bow's name, but there's not much I can do about it.) However, Lawrence wanted it to pronounce Bow's name correctly, so he spelled "b-o", and the computer said it right this time.

Bow had been watching lazily from the sidelines. But now he came over, took the chopstick from Lawrence and spelled "b-o". Again, the computer pronounced his name.

At this point, Bow lost interest in the computer and began playing roughly with the chopstick. Lawrence, concerned that he would break it, said:  "Bow, give me the chopstick!"

Bow looked at him in the manner of an impudent child, then he took the chopstick and pointed at a single letter: "y". The computer said: "Why?"

Lawrence is convinced that this is exactly what Bow meant to do: to challenge Lawrence verbally over his command to relinquish the chopstick.

Two issues spring to mind: if the computer allows for creative spelling, how do we prove what Bow meant? Secondly, do we really want a computer program that encourages Bow to spell things wrong? On the glass, he would never have thought to say "y". He would have spelled it out: "w-h-y".


  1. I'm confused. I thought we specifically checked that the built-in Microsoft text-to-speech pronounces Bow correctly. What changed?

  2. No, it never pronounced it correctly. It was always [bau]. Is there a way to change that? I thought since we were using a pre-packaged Microsoft module, we didn't have access to their dictionary to change the pronunciation. Can we change it?

    When a single word spelled b-o-w is sent to a speech to text algorithm, without context as a mediator, it is bound to mispronounce it some of the time, as this same spelling has two standard pronunciations. But if we can select the one that occurs most often in our dialogues, it would be good.