Cambridge University on a mission to create talking computer

Serious speech recognition capabilities are just the beginning. Researchers are aiming for a fully conversational system……
TALKING COMPUTER: Dr Theopolis from TV series Buck Rogers
TALKING COMPUTER: Dr Theopolis from TV series Buck Rogers

Scientists in Cambridge are trying to make one of the great sci-fi dreams a reality – creating a computer that talks properly.

Experts at the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University are spearheading a research project called Parlance, which aims to develop a system that will not only speak, but will learn.

Prof Steve Young, who is leading the Cambridge research team, said current speech recognition software, such as Siri, which allows people to speak to their iPhones, is limited – and what people want is something more akin to Hal, the talking computer in the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

He said: “Siri is a sort of personal assistant. If you ask it a question, it comes back with an answer, but after that you more or less have to start again. We want to develop systems with which you can have a proper conversation.

“The amount of information on the internet is rapidly growing and, before long, it will take more than question-answer interfaces to cut through it. We need systems that are attuned to our needs – computers that discuss things.”

Talking computers have featured in several novels and movies. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, soft-voiced Hal attempts to kill the astronauts he was created to protect, and in 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, a computer built to run the West’s nuclear weapons systems develops a sinister agenda and announces it has become “the voice of world control.”

But Prof Young said the Cambridge project aimed to create a system “that talks to humans and learns as it goes”.

He said: “The idea is not dissimilar to teaching a child new vocabulary, and the shifting set of ideas the words may represent. All the systems out there work on the basis of pre-written programmes.

“Parlance refines its responses with experience. Critically, it takes into account not just the last thing its user said, but its overall assumptions about their intentions, their earlier questions, and its experiences from previous conversations.”

It said one use for a more sophisticated program could be the property market, where in response to questions from house-hunters, a computer could give extensive details about homes.

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Cambridge University on a mission to create talking computer

Serious speech recognition capabilities are just the beginning. Researchers are aiming for a fully conversational system……
TALKING COMPUTER: Dr Theopolis from TV series Buck Rogers
TALKING COMPUTER: Dr Theopolis from TV series Buck Rogers

Scientists in Cambridge are trying to make one of the great sci-fi dreams a reality – creating a computer that talks properly.

Experts at the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University are spearheading a research project called Parlance, which aims to develop a system that will not only speak, but will learn.

Prof Steve Young, who is leading the Cambridge research team, said current speech recognition software, such as Siri, which allows people to speak to their iPhones, is limited – and what people want is something more akin to Hal, the talking computer in the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

He said: “Siri is a sort of personal assistant. If you ask it a question, it comes back with an answer, but after that you more or less have to start again. We want to develop systems with which you can have a proper conversation.

“The amount of information on the internet is rapidly growing and, before long, it will take more than question-answer interfaces to cut through it. We need systems that are attuned to our needs – computers that discuss things.”

Talking computers have featured in several novels and movies. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, soft-voiced Hal attempts to kill the astronauts he was created to protect, and in 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, a computer built to run the West’s nuclear weapons systems develops a sinister agenda and announces it has become “the voice of world control.”

But Prof Young said the Cambridge project aimed to create a system “that talks to humans and learns as it goes”.

He said: “The idea is not dissimilar to teaching a child new vocabulary, and the shifting set of ideas the words may represent. All the systems out there work on the basis of pre-written programmes.

“Parlance refines its responses with experience. Critically, it takes into account not just the last thing its user said, but its overall assumptions about their intentions, their earlier questions, and its experiences from previous conversations.”

It said one use for a more sophisticated program could be the property market, where in response to questions from house-hunters, a computer could give extensive details about homes.

More-latest speech technologies
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