SciTech

Science Q & A: Can computers detect a writer’s gender?

One of the works the Winnowit computer program miscategorized as having been written by a man was the novel “Possession,” by A.S. Byatt – a woman.
One of the works the Winnowit computer program miscategorized as having been written by a man was the novel “Possession,” by A.S. Byatt – a woman. A.S. Byatt

Q. Can a computer tell from published documents whether the author is a man or a woman?

A. One computer program had a reported accuracy rate of 80 percent in its analysis of language patterns in modern written material.

In a study published in 2002 in the journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, researchers analyzed 566 published documents in British English using a program they called Winnow.

The program was “trained” on material that was labeled having been written by men or women. It then analyzed the comparative frequency in unlabeled documents of scores of features of writing judged to be independent of content.

The features included parts of speech, like nouns and pronouns, and function words, like “and” and “the,” which have little meaning of their own but indicate grammatical relationships within a sentence. It also studied patterns like two- and three-word phrases – for example, “above the table.”

The writings were fiction and nonfiction, and the same techniques can make that distinction accurately 98 percent of the time, the researchers said.

In the training phase, the authors identified as male features in fiction the more frequent use of “a,” “the” and “as.” Female features in fiction included “she,” “for,” “with” and “not.” In nonfiction, male features included “that” and “one,” and female features were “for,” “with,” “not” and “in.”

The program was far from flawless. One of the works it miscategorized as having been written by a man was the novel “Possession,” by A.S. Byatt, a woman.

Did squirrels miss the fall colors?

Q. Do squirrels see the colorful fall display of red, yellow and brown leaves?

A. Squirrels do have color vision, but they cannot see the difference between the green leaves of summer and the red leaves of fall, researchers say.

A 1987 study of the tree squirrel, published in The Journal of Comparative Physiology A, analyzed their color vision using behavioral tests and examining the kinds of color-sensing nerve cells in their retinas.

The researchers concluded that the familiar gray tree squirrels have dichromatic color vision. This means squirrels can distinguish red and green from other colors but cannot tell red and green from each other. This kind of color vision closely resembles red-green color blindness in humans.

The behavioral tests used lighted panels of different colors. The squirrels learned that when they touched the panel displaying a target color, a food pellet was released.

Upon direct examination under anesthesia, squirrels’ retinas were stimulated to see which photoreceptor cells responded to which colors of light.

  Comments