Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Explaining Effes using easy words

I read a nice thing today: the person who wrote it was explaining what they do using only easy words. (He got that idea from another place.) That person works on some very hard problems, but he was still able to explain them. I thought I would do the same for Effes (which isn't as hard as what that other person does!).

In order to get a computer to do something, you have to say what you want in a different way than normal talking. There are many, many ways to do this, but only a few are used by most people. I want to come up with a new way of talking to a computer, but I know that it won't ever be used by most people. I'll probably be the only person to ever use it, if I ever finish it at all! So why do I want to do this?

First of all, it's fun. I like learning about new ways of talking to computers, so coming up with one of my own is interesting. This is the most important reason, and it's why I sometimes don't work on this for weeks, if I'm not in the mood. But I also have some ideas I haven't seen before, and which I think might be fun to try.

Most ways of talking to computers have a way of saying that one thing is a kind of another thing. This idea is very important. You can say that a dog is a kind of animal, and so is a cat. This means you can think of both a dog and a cat as being just an animal — in which case you can ask it to walk or eat — or you can think of a dog as exactly being a dog, in which case you can ask it to sit (which you can't ask a cat to do).

Most ways of talking to computers focus on that idea, but Effes focuses on another one: that a dog is an animal added with something that sits. This lets you add a dog with even more things — like something that chases balls. You can even say that something runs, eats, sits, and chases balls, without saying that it's a dog. That means if you have a horse, you can say easily that it does all those things, without having to say that there is such a thing as a "running, eating, sitting, ball-chasing animal," which a dog and horse are, but a cat is not (remember, the cat does all of those things except sitting).

This idea seems simple, but there are hard parts to it. A dog and a person can both eat, but let's say a person can get full while a dog never can (they like to eat a lot!). So if you have something, and all you know is that it eats (you don't know if it's a dog or a person), then it's hard to know if it should be full after it eats.

A bigger problem is if you add a dog and a person together. That doesn't really make sense, but you can still ask the computer to do it! If you have such a thing, and you ask it to eat, then is it full? Its person-half is full, but its dog-half isn't. But a thing can't be both full and not-full. (There are real cases that are like the dog-person but more normal, but for now let's focus on the dog-person.)

The answer to this problem in Effes is that sometimes the dog-person is both full and not-full, and the computer thinks about things both ways. But other times, you tell the computer that one of the halves is more important, and then the computer only thinks about that half's answer to the question, "are you full?" So if you ask if a dog-person is full after it eats, the answer could be "yes and no," or "yes" (if the person half is more important) or "no" (if the dog half is more important). You get to pick which it is.

So far, I have only thought about some of these ideas. My next step is to get the computer to actually start thinking in this new way.

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