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Robots Know Just A ‘Bit’ About Language,
Kids So Much More​

A new research suggests that kids are exceptional learners and absorb up to 2 bits of information per minute (or more than 1000 bits of new information every day) and can recall 2000 bits of information per day till they enter adulthood.

Learning one’s native language may seem effortless. However, the research from the University of California (UC) Berkeley in the US shows that language acquisition between birth and 18 is a remarkable feat of cognition, rather than something humans are just hardwired to do.

Researchers calculated that from infancy to young adulthood, humans absorb approximately 12.5 million bits of information about language—about two bits per minute—to fully acquire linguistic knowledge. If converted into binary code, the amount of information needed to master one’s native language is 1.5 MB.

What’s more the results also suggest that learners of a language can on an average extract nearly 2000 bits of information about how language works each day for 18 years.

A bit, or binary digit, is a basic unit of data in computing, and computers store information and calculate using only zeroes and ones. The study uses the standard definition of eight bits to a byte

Clap-tcha for young human brains

These findings, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal challenge assumptions that human language acquisition happens effortlessly, and that robots would have an easy time mastering it. Pat yourself on the back dear humans (and show the captcha its proper place which asks you to confirm that you are not a robot).

“This really highlights a difference between machine learners and human learners. Machines know what words go together and where they go in sentences, but know very little about the meaning of words,” said Steven Piantadosi, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley.

 The difference between how humans see language and how robots see language is perhaps the same as the difference between an artist and an artisan. An artist is ‘creative’ and an idea is born from his/her id/ imagination/ consciousness while an artisan is unable to see the larger picture but very diligently executes the portion he/she has been asked to complete. The robot, like an artisan, might be highly skilled, exceptionally so, but not creative. 

Mind boggling

“Ours is the first study to put a number on the sheer amount you have to learn to acquire language. It highlights that children and teens are remarkable learners, absorbing upwards of 1,000 bits of information each day,” he added.

“When you think about a child having to remember millions of zeroes and ones (in language), that says they must have really pretty impressive learning mechanisms,” said a visibly impressed Piantadosi.

Getting romantic about semantics

Researchers wanted to gauge the amounts and different kinds of information that English speakers need to learn their native language.

They arrived at their results by running various calculations about language semantics (meaning of words and phrases) and syntax (the order of words in a sentence) through computational models.

The study found that linguistic knowledge focuses mostly on the meaning of words, as opposed to the grammar of the language.

“A lot of research on language learning focuses on syntax, like word order, but our study shows that syntax represents just a tiny piece of language learning and that the main difficulty has got to be in learning what so many words mean,” Piantadosi said.

To illustrate the nuances required to master the language, the researchers broke down the process by which a language learner comes to understand what a turkey is. On learning the word “turkey”, a young learner typically gathers bits of information by asking, “Is a turkey a bird? Yes, or no? Does a turkey fly? Yes, or no?” and so on, until grasping the full meaning of the word “turkey.”

The focus on semantics versus syntax distinguishes humans from robots, including voice-controlled digital helpers such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

Are multi-linguals smarter?

As for the question of whether bilingual/multi-lingual people must store twice as many bits of information, Piantadosi said this is unlikely in the case of word meanings, many of which are shared across languages.

“The meanings of many common nouns like ‘mother’ will be similar across languages, and so you won’t need to learn all of the bits of information about their meanings twice,” he said.


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