AI is transforming the English dictionary

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AI has made another assault on the English language. After taking the title of the Collins Dictionary word of the year, artificial intelligence this week assailed the Cambridge version.

This time, the impact is more subtle — but deeper. The first example emerged from Cambridge’s word of the year for 2023: “hallucinate.”

It’s an old word, but the award is due to a new meaning. In the latest versions of the Cambridge Dictionary, “hallucinate” has an extra definition:

“When an artificial intelligence (= a computer system that has some of the qualities that the human brain has, such as the ability to produce language in a way that seems human) hallucinates, it produces false information.”

To clarify the concept, the entry also includes two examples:

  1. LLMs are notorious for hallucinating — generating completely false answers, often supported by fictitious citations.
  2. The latest version of the chatbot is greatly improved but it will still hallucinate facts.

Hallucinating words

At TNW Towers, we welcome Cambridge’s intervention. Tech experts may argue that they’re reducing hallucinations, but the problem is far from solved — and the results can be alarming.

ChatGPT, for instance, can spoutdangerous medical advice. Security analysts fear the bot’s hallucinations could also drive malicious code towards software developers.

There are also risks for the Cambridge Dictionary.

“Managing the tendency of generative AI tools to hallucinate will be key to ensuring our users can continue to trust us,” said Wendalyn Nichols, the book’s publishing manager.

“The emergence of a new meaning of hallucinate is a great case in point.  It’s human experts tracking and capturing changes in the language that make the Cambridge Dictionary a trustworthy source of information about new words and senses — ones the public-facing AI tools won’t have learned yet.”

AI’s second linguistic influence

The new meaning of hallucinate isn’t the only mark of AI on the Cambridge lexicon.

During 2023, lexicographers have added various definitions related to artificial intelligence, including large language model (or LLM), generative AI (or GenAI), and GPT.

At the tech’s current pace of development, the impact on 2024’s dictionaries could be even deeper.

With the generative AI explosion still booming, perhaps artificial intelligence will simply invent the next word of the year.

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