Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

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Complex Things Simply: Semiotics, Intertextuality and Sophia's Tech

Some people really love using big words. I am not sure what drives this passion, whether it is genuinely the way their mind operates or if they are just trying to impress. I always suspect it is the latter. For me I prefer simple language that everyone can understand. That said, explaining “complex things simply” is a very difficult thing to do.  John Bohannon famously gave a TED talk on Dancing your PhD where he proposes that in order to really be able to explain your PhD thesis you should be able to boiled it down to really simple ideas that can be portrayed through dance movements! Quite a challenge but I strongly recommend you watch the talk.

David Patterson, Sophia CEO

I have firsthand experience of this challenge in Sophia where we have developed software that can read, understand the meaning within written text (such as web pages and word files) and uncover unknown relationships that exist. The ideas behind the software are based on 2 things 1) Semiotics 2) intertextuality. Huuhhhh?? These are not common words most people can identify with so let me try to explain.

The science behind Semiotics was originally developed to explain how we understand the meaning of signs and symbols. The meaning of any symbol depends on its setting. For example, the thumbs up gesture in most western cultures is a positive sign and means good or well done. However, you don’t want to do this gesture in some middle eastern countries where it is extremely insulting. Same sign but different setting equals different meaning. Linguists then took these principles and applied them to language to explain how meaning is assigned to words and how, depending on its context within a sentence, the same word can take on different meanings. Java is a good example of this. It can be an island, a beverage, or a programming language depending on the setting. Sophia draws on these concepts in its complex algorithms to understand individual word meaning within documents.

What is intertextuality? Intertextuality is all about understanding the meaning of a text at a higher (document) level.  To truly understand the meaning of a text you need to have an understanding of other texts that are similar, or that are either directly or indirectly referred to by it. For example research papers often reference other published papers that serve as background or context for the new study.  To fully understand the meaning of the new paper you need to be familiar with the older studies.

Intertextuality is everywhere. A great example is seen in an episode of the Simpsons where they did a spoof of Hitchcock’s movie Psycho. They did a reenactment of the famous shower scene with Homer replacing Janet Leigh. What has this to do with intertextuality? Well, if you hadn’t seen the original movie the humor of the entire episode would have been lost on you. In order to understand the meaning and the humor of the episode you needed to have seen the movie. This is intertextuality. Now how do I explain this in dance?


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More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.