Will Computers Ever Truly Understand What We’re Saying?


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“This shift in understanding how people communicate without any need for language provides a new theoretical and empirical foundation for understanding normal social communication, and provides a new window into understanding and treating disorders of social communication in neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Dr. Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology in the campus’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at UCSF.

Stolk and his colleagues discuss the importance of conceptual alignment for mutual understanding in an opinion piece appearing Jan. 11 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Brain scans pinpoint site for ‘meeting of minds’

To explore how brains achieve mutual understanding, Stolk created a game that requires two players to communicate the rules to each other solely by game movements, without talking or even seeing one another, eliminating the influence of language or gesture. He then placed both players in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imager) and scanned their brains as they nonverbally communicated with one another via computer.

He found that the same regions of the brain – located in the poorly understood right temporal lobe, just above the ear – became active in both players during attempts to communicate the rules of the game. Critically, the superior temporal gyrus of the right temporal lobe maintained a steady, baseline activity throughout the game but became more active when one player suddenly understood what the other player was trying to communicate. The brain’s right hemisphere is more involved in abstract thought and social interactions than the left hemisphere.

“These regions in the right temporal lobe increase in activity the moment you establish a shared meaning for something, but not when you communicate a signal,” Stolk said. “The better the players got at understanding each other, the more active this region became.”

This means that both players are building a similar conceptual framework in the same area of the brain, constantly testing one another to make sure their concepts align, and updating only when new information changes that mutual understanding. The results were reported in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It is surprising,” said Stolk, “that for both the communicator, who has static input while she is planning her move, and the addressee, who is observing dynamic visual input during the game, the same region of the brain becomes more active over the course of the experiment as they improve their mutual understanding.”

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