The tipping point

One of the most widespread uses of artificial intelligence and machine learning nowadays is that of image recognition. Computers learn to recognise images by using artificial neural networks which help establish relationships between the members of a dataset. It is an approach that seeks to mimic the way the human brain works. More data, more recognition and less error. But, as numerous AI critics have pointed out, all you need to do is change a few pixels in an image, imperceptible to the naked eye, for the computer to stop recognising the image as such. However successful a system may be at recognising 100 images as being those of an airplane, if you change some key pixels in any one image, that image will cease to be ‘seen’ by the computer as being that of an airplane. Obviously that’s not how the human brain works. We’d still recognise an airplane in an image even when a serious percent of the image is distorted. Computers don’t – their tipping point is lower.

I went to see the Nero exhibition at the British Museum last week. An absolute delight, try to see it before it ends on 24 October. On my way out, I stopped at the museum shop to check out the books and the consumer paraphernalia of the Nero marketing campaign. And among centurion rubber ducks and replica Roman jewelry, there were several lavender-infused bath products, oils and salts. I normally get excited about anything Roman, Latin and ancient, so I turned over the Roman bath oil packaging to see if there was a story. How exciting, there was. How disappointing, what the text said.

The Latin word for wash is Lavare which came from the Roman practice of putting lavender in their bath water.

In the first half of the seventh century AD, the Spanish scholar and archbishop Isidore of Seville wrote one of the most influential works of the medieval period, a books known as the Etymologies. The book was a compendium of ancient and late-antique knowledge, a highly-organised encyclopedia on every major topic of interest. And, as the title of the work suggests, Isidore tried to find out the roots of words, to go back to the beginning of language. But what he achieved was fanciful etymology at best. Here’s an example.

According to Isidore, bees, in Latin apes, ‘are so called either because they bind themselves together with their feet, in Latin pes, or because they are born without feet, a-pes‘.

Isidore’s tipping point from fact was even lower – as is that of our lavender bath oil marketers.

In fact, the Latin verb lavo, lavare, has a Proto-Indo-European root, ’leue’, to wash – and it has nothing to do with lavander. On the other hand, the root of the English word ‘lavender’ is the French lavande (notice the second ‘a’ in the root ‘lavand’ making a comeback), which harks back to the Latin ’lavare’, perhaps on account of the practice of using lavender in baths – not an ancient, but a medieval custom, if it all – the lavender-scented jury is still out on that one.

By moving a few pixels in the story of the verb ‘lavare’, the image became unrecognisable.

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