Native Tongue

We live in a time of great scientific achievement. Each of us did ten things today that Robert Heinlein himself would have chalked up to fevered hallucination. Even against such a backdrop, news has broken of a feat that will violate your system like an adrenaline shot through the sternum. Sitting down would be a good idea, should you happen to be reading this while standing. Programmers at a university in Israel have developed an algorithm that is able to detect sarcasm. This is literally the most astonishing thing to happen in the month of May. This is literally a game-changer. Finally, a machine that can tell when someone is being sarcastic.

The researchers based their work on the largest repository of sarcasm on the Internet — the user-written product reviews on Amazon. Over five thousand sentences from Amazon reviews were hand-labeled "sarcastic" and "not sarcastic," a task that must have been both fun and rewarding. Those unpaid grad student volunteers probably showed up early and stayed late. By identifying patterns within each type of sentence, the algorithm learned to judge whether a statement is intended to be genuine or sarcastic. The team tested the algorithm on 66,000 product reviews, which is not a strange number at all, and definitely does not raise the question of why they wouldn't just keep going until 100,00.

Final result: 77% accuracy. That's a C+, a respectable grade. A grade that means one is trying very hard and has a good chance of going to college. A grade that never once made my Mom angry and convinced her to take away my Nintendo. It's fortunate that this miracle of modern science was developed at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, because if the Holy City needed one thing in this world, it's a laptop that knows when someone is being sarcastic. Thousands of years of complex, deep-seated strife will no doubt be resolved by Labor Day.

However, the sad truth is that there likely isn't a wide market for this kind of application. People are fully able to detect sarcasm on their own, and certainly don't need help from a machine. An application that could highlight sarcastic comments in a block of text would offer no real world value as an add-on to e-mail, text messages, Facebook, WordPress, or the entire MS Office suite. None whatsoever.

Play us out, Dave.