Saturday, December 17, 2022

Margaret Masterman, pioneering computational linguist [+ Haiku]

Margaret Masterman was one of the pioneers of computational linguistics, though it was called machine translation when she first worked in the field. She had studied with Wittgenstein in 1933-34. Student notes from that year became The Blue Book. She founded the Cambridge Language Research Unit in 1953. Three researchers from the CLRU were eventually awarded an Annual Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Computational Linguistics in the US.

And she was one of the first, if not THE first (I don’t really know), to use a computer to create haiku. She reported on that work for the Times Literary Supplement in, I believe, 1970. As computing has changed a great deal since then, I thought I’d see what the latest cat on the computational block could do.

Four Haiku by ChatGPT

Notice that I requested that the haiku be formatted as a computer program. That explains the black background and the colored text. Note: if you click on these images, they'll become larger and more legible.

Now ChatGPT gets serious about code formatting. You can read the haiku in the line labeled “return.”


While Masterman was getting things started at Cambridge, a man named David Hays was heading up the machine translation program at the RAND Corporation. By the late 1960s he decided that the excitement at RAND was over, at least for him, and he became the founding chairman of the Department of Linguistics at the State University at Buffalo. That’s where I met him.

I joined his computational linguistics work group in the fall of 1975. One day I was at Hays’s house – perhaps working on putting out an issue of the American Journal of Computational Linguistics (AJCL), of which he was editor – and we were talking about things and stuff. He said that he’d had in interesting and possibly important idea about consciousness, but that it was so crazy he was reluctant to tell it to anyone for fear they’d think he’d gone off the deep end. There was, however, one person he trusted.


Margaret Masterman.

Margaret Masterman! You mean THE Margaret Masterman?


And then he told me about her and computational linguistics and about Martin Kay, whom he had hired at RAND in the late 1950s. I already knew about Kay – he typeset some pages of AJCL on his Xerox Alto (he was working at PARC at the time) – but hadn't known that he had been a student of Masterman's. Dave also told me that she was the one who knitted that white sweater he wore so often in cool weather.

Why had I been so impressed that Hays knew Masterman? Because she had written a superb and now classic essay on Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm, “The Nature of a Paradigm.” I read that sometime in the early 1970s and was quite impressed. She catalogued 22 different senses in which Kuhn had used the word. I suppose that it was during the conversation that I learned that she was married to a philosopher named R. B. Braithwaite.

I had studied decision theory with him in my senior year at Johns Hopkins. He was visiting at Hopkins in 1968-69 and, as a philosophy major, I was urged to take the course. We were given to believe that he was a major figure. Also a bit eccentric. I knew nothing about his relationship with Masterman, nor did I learn anything about her relationship with him when I read the Kuhn essay. Those were different worlds and different people.

This diagram lays out those relationships:

The poetry linkage at the right reflects the fact that I worked on the semantics of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, “The Expense of Spirit.” I didn’t code anything, but I took a computational view about the workings of the mind, literature in particular.

Now, six haiku for Margaret Masterman

Given the way that I structured this piece you may have gotten the impression that I had Masterman in mind when I prompted ChatGPT to produce some haiku. That’s not the case, however. I was just messing around, having it produce text in code format. But there is no reason I couldn’t now prompt ChatGPT to write haiku in honor of Masterman. I did so this morning. Here is that session:

Are you familiar with Margaret Masterman, the linguist and philosopher who did pioneering work in machine translation?

Yes, I am familiar with Margaret Masterman. She was a linguist and philosopher who made significant contributions to the field of machine translation. Masterman is known for her work on the Cambridge Language Research Unit, where she developed the concept of the "interlingua," which refers to a hypothetical language that can be used as a translation intermediary between any pair of natural languages. This concept was influential in the development of machine translation systems and remains an important idea in the field today. Masterman also made contributions to the study of semantics and the philosophy of language.

Did you know that she is perhaps the first person to have a computer generate haiku?

Yes, I am aware that Margaret Masterman is credited with being one of the first people to have a computer generate haiku. Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. It is characterized by its brevity and the use of sensory imagery to convey a mood or atmosphere. Masterman's work on machine translation and natural language processing made it possible for computers to generate haiku by analyzing the structure and content of existing haiku and using that information to create new poems. This was a significant achievement at the time and contributed to the development of more advanced natural language processing systems.

Would you be willing to generate three haiku in her honor?

1. Translating words of old 
2. Masterman's interlingua 
3. Bridging cultures anew

1. A pioneer of thought 
2. Masterman's machine translation 
3. A path to understanding

1. The linguist's mind at work 
2. Masterman's haiku creation 
3. A poetic masterpiece

Still in her honor, would you give me one haiku that mentions persimmons, one that mentions cherry blossoms, and one that mentions Mount Fuji?

1. Persimmons hanging low
2. Nature's bounty in autumn's glow
3. Sweetness on the tongue

1. Cherry blossoms dance
2. In the springtime's gentle breeze
3. A fleeting beauty

1. Mount Fuji stands tall
2. A symbol of Japan's might
3. Eternal and grand


どういたしまして (You're welcome!) I'm glad that I could help. Haiku is a beautiful and concise form of poetry that can convey a lot of meaning in just a few words. I hope you enjoyed the haiku I generated for you. Let me know if you have any other questions or need further assistance.

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