Natural Language Processing
< http://www.technologyreview.com/magazine/jan01/tr10_jensen.asp >
Emerging from the laboratories, moreover, is a new generation of
interfaces that will allow us to engage computers in extended
conversation—an activity that requires a dauntingly complex integration
of speech recognition, natural-language understanding, discourse
analysis, world knowledge, reasoning ability and speech generation. It's
true that the existing prototypes can only talk about such well-defined
topics as weather forecasts (MIT's Jupiter), or local movie schedules
(Carnegie Mellon's Movieline). But the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on wide-ranging conversational
interfaces that will ultimately include pointing, gesturing and other
forms of visual communication as well.
Parallel efforts are under way at industry giants such as IBM and
Microsoft, which see not only immediate applications for computer users
who need to keep their hands and eyes free but also the rapid evolution
of speech-enabled "intelligent environments." The day is coming when
every object big enough to hold a chip actually has one. We'd better be
able to talk these objects because very few of them will have room for a
Getting there will be a huge challenge—but that's exactly what attracts
investigators like Karen Jensen, the gung-ho chief of the Natural
Language Processing group at Microsoft Research. Says Jensen: "I can't
imagine anything that would be more thrilling, or carry more potential
for the future, than to make it possible for us to truly interact with
our computers. That would be so exciting!"
Such declarations are typical of Jensen, who at 62 remains as exuberant
about technology's promise as any teenager—and just as ready to keep
hacker's hours. Indeed, Jensen was one of the first people Microsoft
hired when it opened its research lab in 1991. Along with colleagues
Stephen Richardson and George Heidorn, she arrived at the Redmond,
Wash., campus from IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, where they
had worked on some of the earliest grammar-checking software, and
immediately started building a group that now numbers some 40 people.
In Redmond, Jensen and her colleagues soon found themselves contributing
to the natural-language query interface for Microsoft's Encarta
encyclopedia and to the grammar checker that first appeared in Word 97.
And now, she says, they've begun to focus all their efforts on a unique
technology known as MindNet. MindNet is a system for automatically
extracting a massively hyperlinked web of concepts from, say, a standard
dictionary. If a dictionary defines "motorist" as "a person who drives a
car," for example, MindNet will use its automatic parsing technology to
find the definition's underlying logical structure, identifying
"motorist" as a kind of person, and "drives" as a verb taking motorist
as a subject and car as an object. The result is a conceptual network
that ties together all of human understanding in words, says Jensen.
The very act of putting this conceptual network into a computer takes
the machine a long way toward "understanding" natural language. For
example, to figure out that "Please arrange for a meeting with John at
11 o'clock" means the same thing as "Make an appointment with John at
11," the computer simply has to parse the two sentences and show that
they both map to the same logical structures in MindNet. "It's not
perfect grokking," Jensen concedes. "But it's a darn good first step."
MindNet also promises to be a powerful tool for machine translation,
Jensen says. The idea is to have MindNet create separate conceptual webs
for English and another language, Spanish, for example, and then align
the webs so that the English logical forms match their Spanish
equivalents. MindNet then annotates these matched logical forms with
data from the English-Spanish translation memory, so that translation
can proceed smoothly in either direction.
Indeed, says Jensen, who is now in the process of passing on the
leadership of the group to the younger generation, MindNet seems to tie
together everything they've been doing for the past nine years: "All we
see is doors opening. We don't see any closing!"
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This archive was generated by hypermail 2.0.0 : Fri Sep 21 2001 - 16:43:26 PDT