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Computerized kitty coinages

by Mellissa Martinez

Two years ago when we adopted a kitten from the local shelter, she came with the name Middle Me, which had been assigned by the staff. The name felt flat and boring—especially when taking into consideration her vibrant personality.

I decided to allow my younger son, Felix, to rename her and he took the job seriously, spending several days in deliberation. Eventually, he decided on Dab, based on the wildly popular dance move.

Of course, I informed him that the word ‘dab’ had other meanings like ‘small amount’ or ‘pat with fingertips.’ I even sang the old 50s slogan, “a little dab’ll do ya.” It wasn’t until much later that I discovered another meaning for ‘dab’—a concentrated dose of marijuana. Somehow I think my older son, Diego, was aware of this less-savory connotation but kept the information to himself.

I offer our personal experience of cat naming to underscore the challenges of the endeavor. However, I recently stumbled across a surprising solution for first time pet parents. Although I know very little about artificial intelligence as it relates to computational linguistics, I recently read an article that explained how computers are now being used to generate language—and pet names!

Natural Language Processing, NLP, a subfield of artificial intelligence helps computers understand, interpret and manipulate human language. Combining knowledge from computational linguistics and computer science, NLP is the foundation of programs such as Google Translate, Grammarly and Siri.

One of the biggest challenges facing NLP experts is the concept of meaning. This is because words contain many aspects which are all factored in when we use them.

As English speakers, consider part of speech (noun, verb, preposition, etc.), idiomatic meaning, connotations and associations. We understand, for example, that a ‘dog’ falls under the category of animal; we also know that ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ are much more closely related than ‘dog’ and ‘giraffe.’ If a friend tells us that he is adopting an animal, we naturally jump to the category of domestic pet in our brains and assume that he is considering a dog or cat. A computer must be taught all of these intricacies to correctly produce language.

This sort of ambiguity, which exists in all human languages, makes NLP difficult to implement, but scientists continue to develop more advanced systems, which are largely working. One such system, Artificial Neural Nets, attempts to classify words in the way that the human brain does. Using several (extremely) complicated systems, the Neural Net receives data (words or sentences), assigns a weight (or number) to the word and embeds it with similar words, then produces output.

Not surprisingly, people nave started using Neural Nets for fun—which brings me back to cats. One Philadelphia-based computer scientist and blogger stared from scratch giving the Neural Net 8,000 existing cat names to imitate.

The computer had no prior knowledge of English and had not been told which letter and word combinations were not acceptable. As a result, it came up with mostly nonsensical options, offering options that sounded a bit like a cat name, but just didn’t feel right. Some of the unfortunate suggestions included, ‘Retchion,’ ‘Hurler’ and ‘Tilly-Mapper.’ The computer was clearly not considering connotations and unpleasant sound combinations.

He decided to give it another try and fed the same 8,000 cat names into a Neural Net that had been previously trained by data from the internet. It already understood letter and word sequences that tend to be used together. It also considered idiomatic meanings and kitty connotations. This solved the problem. Gone were names like Ballicidoux, as cute inventions like PomPomPure were born.

The new system produced fancy names such as, Taffeta, Tom Glitter, Cheesemonger and Mr. Tinklesby Soap. For the less delicate owners, it also came up with suggestions like Meat Bag, Dr. Fart, Fudge Putty and Buttwig. And for those with a dark sense of humor, it produced suggestions like Miss Vulgar and Evil Whispers.

The names were so abundant that the man decided to share them with a local shelter who uses them whenever they get a new litter. That lucky bunch of kitties doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck with a dull name like Middle Me. They get to head off to their new owners with perfect computerized kitty names like Whiskeridoo, Sparky Buttons and Peanut Butter Jiggles.