brian m. carlson brian m. carlson Language version 2 of the GNU General Public License the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

As a writer and a poet, language is important to me. It forms the basis for nearly all our communication and its written form is widely considered the most important development that human society has ever made.

I also work quite a bit with computers. Computers are relatively stupid: they only understand information in highly-specific and highly-restricted languages. I've noticed, though, that computers have given rise to some of the most interesting aspects of human language.

One case where computers are ever-present is cryptography (which, according to cryptographer Bruce Schneier, is the art and science of keeping messages secure). For simplicity's sake, we generally call the two people involved in some sort of cryptographic exchange Alice and Bob. This is easier than calling them Person A and Person B.

There have been attempts to prove the security of certain cryptographic systems. In order to do so, we need to talk about how humans act in certain situations and thus, Alice and Bob's states of mind. This leads to questions such as What does it mean that Alice believes something? Our answer must be very precise so that we can rigorously test our assumptions. The answer, in one set of thought, is that to say Alice believes X means that Alice acts as though X were true.

Now, this is really the best definition of belief that I've ever heard, regardless of context. It is clear and unambiguous. It's perfect as a way to model cryptographic proofs. It's also perfect as a way to describe one important action that pervades our society.

Another case where specificity is important is RDF. RDF is basically a method to describe metadata (data about data). We might want to use RDF to describe the relationships between people, or information about a book. There are specially created vocabularies to discuss almost anything, including biographical information about people. The data represented in these vocabularies must be exceptionally precise, since computers are once again going to manipulate it.

One of the interesting aspects is what it means to be born. According to one vocabulary of biographical information (linked above), birth is the event of a person entering into life. While this seems a simple description that is hard to quibble with, in MacBeth (sorry, theater geeks), the titular character is told that none of woman born/Shall harm MacBeth. Unfortunately for MacBeth, MacDuff was delivered in a Caesarian section, and thus was not considered born. Oops.

Computers and the language related to them inject a newfound sense of precision into English. Whether this is a good thing or not is, of course, a matter of what you believe.