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Essay: Social context of language and computers

DUE: Monday, May 6, 10am. Put your printed copy in the box outside Jason Baldridge's office (CLA 4.738).

For the last assignment, you will write an essay that discusses the ethical and social issues that arise with respect to one of the topics from the course. Read ALL of the following instructions and make sure you follow them. The instructions are here to help you do a good job and get a good grade, not because I enjoy being so explicit…

You must submit a hard copy and email a PDF or Word copy to me and the TA.

Warning: DON'T PLAGIARIZE. The penalties set out by the university for plagiarism are quite heavy. I’m a computational linguist with access to plenty of resources for comparing different texts, so it probably is a bad idea to try it here…

Topics and issues

Choose one of the following topics:

  1. Document classification
  2. Forensic linguistics
  3. Dialog systems
  4. Cryptography
  5. Machine translation

And one of the following issues:

  1. jobs
  2. privacy
  3. our perception of ourselves and what it means to be human
  4. language preservation and death
  5. entertainment
  6. cross-cultural communication

If you would like to write about a different topic and/or issue, please get in touch with me and I'll let you know if they are appropriate.


You should make sure to include concepts covered in the course, e.g.:

  1. writing systems and encodings
  2. precision and recall
  3. presupposition failure
  4. shallow and deep methods
  5. the computational theory of the mind
  6. the Chinese room
  7. emergence
  8. homunculus
  9. the uncanny valley
  10. rule-based systems
  11. machine learning
  12. formal representations
  13. robots and machine perception
  14. grounded understanding
  15. ciphers
  16. brute-force attack
  17. code-talkers
  18. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  19. language differences
  20. universal grammar

Your essay should touch on some of those concepts, probably not half, and certainly not all of them – you only have 1000-1500 words after all.


The following information should be at the beginning of your essay:

  1. Name:
  2. UT EID:
  3. LIN 313, Language and Computers, Spring 2013
  4. Title:
  5. Number of words:

Your essay should have the following attributes:

  1. it is 1000-1500 words (no more, no less)
  2. it includes course concepts (such as those suggested above)
  3. it makes a clear thesis statement (see below)
  4. it has appropriate structure, including introduction, body, and conclusion. Check out these tips on essay writing.
  5. it references at least two relevant outside sources: one or both must be a book or journal article and one may be a magazine article (not a Wikipedia page or general website). For magazines, publications like Scientific American are appropriate, but ones like People are not. (Ask if you aren't sure.) More than one reference may be used. Don't just add bibliographic entries at the end of the essay – they should be cited in context, within the essay in the portion(s) of the essay it is relevant for, as well as having a bibliography at the end (and not as footnotes). Some useful resources for finding outside sources: UT Library, Google Scholar, Google Books.
  6. it is typed (hand-written essays won’t be considered)
  7. it is free of spelling and grammar errors (make sure to proof read it)
  8. it is double-spaced

Examples of thesis statements include:

  • Better question answering systems will help people find and maintain jobs by providing quicker and more efficient access to information.
  • Better question answering systems will lead to massive job losses by providing quicker and more efficient access to information.
  • Document classification and other automated filtering techniques threaten to undermine privacy rights by allowing massive amounts of personal information to be searched quickly and enabling decisions to be made automatically about that information without human oversight.
  • Dialog systems will never be accepted on a wide-scale because people will never be comfortable dealing with machines that are not conscious.
  • Machine translation will revolutionize the way we are able to share information across cultures and languages by allowing people around the world to quickly communicate with one another without the need for human translators.

As you can see, you can argue one way or the other – the important thing is to back up your chosen thesis.


The following rubric will be used to score your essay.

Grammar/spelling:                         /15
Structure: /15
Clarity/Argumentation: /20
Originality/Relevance: /10
Use of course concepts: /10
Use of outside references: /10
Overall impression: /20

There is thus a total of 100 points, which will form 15% of your grade (as specified on the syllabus).