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The most ridiculous computer application in the world?

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You're gonna love this one. Some Texan professor has built a computer that can tell suicidal tendencies in poets. Yep, by analysing the works of famous poets, the computer has found differences in the way they used the language than those that didn't top themselves.

Apparently, suicidal poets used "I", "me" and "my" more than those that died a natural death. And they used "talk, "listen" and "share" less often. So now we know.

Sorry, but this must be the most ridiculous piece of research we've ever heard of. And quite possible the most ridiculous use a computer has ever been put to. First of all, you could tell whether poets were suicidal or not but the simple fact that they killed themselves.

Having then "analysed" - meaning, read - the poems of these people (and ignoring those that may have had suicidal tendencies but didn't act on them), this super-computer has come up with the incredible conclusion that they have used the first preposition slightly more than others.

This is a prime case of anti-education caused by our untenable belief that since computers work through logic, anything they come up with should override our experience and understanding.

So people that commit suicide tend to use personal words more. Hmmm. Why could that be? Perhaps because it shows a high level of self-criticism and reflection? Is there anyone out there that didn't know that? How many extroverts do you know that have topped themselves?

And they used words closely related with social interaction less, you say? Funny that. Anything to do with feeling like an outsider? Or evidence of not having a social support structure or strong, stabilising relationships?

This is clear evidence, if it were ever needed, that computers do not understand language - even simple language. Trying to get a PC to analyse one of the most abstract forms of language - the poem - is like trying to drill for oil with a banana.

You'll note the computer didn't pick up any symbolism, or subtle undercurrents in the poems. We're surprised it didn't conclude that suicidal people tend to focus on death more than others. That's the kind of quality we're getting here. Professor James Pennebaker should be ashamed of himself.

The "research" has been published in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal, which in the past has provided us with such gems as "Hopeless feelings predict increased mortality in the elderly", "Positive attitude may save you from having a stroke" and "Cancer patients reduce symptoms and distress with meditation". You get the idea. ®

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