Future of speech tech

Systems like Siri and Cortana are now everyday helpers. But the apparent popularity of speech based interfaces belies the fact that comparatively few languages can be processed using current natural language processing technologies.

English, because of its popularity, and the fact its spoken by many academics, has led it to be the focus of most machine learning research. Millions of people, Dr Sharon Goldwater says, are missing out on the advantages speech tech offers and she hopes her research will redress this imbalance.

The 2016 Needham Lecture
Dr Goldwater is a Reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics and the winner of the 2016 Roger Needham award – an award made annually for distinguished research contributions in computer science by a UK based researcher. Along with the award, the winner is given the opportunity to give a public lecture.
Dr Goldwater’s talk was called ‘Language learning in humans and machines: making connections to make progress.’ Explaining where she hopes her research will lead, she says: ‘There are languages in Africa that have millions of speakers, yet there’s zero language technology. Especially in areas with low literacy, developing speech technology would be very useful – users could call up on their mobile phone, ask a question and get a spoken response. Using current technology, that’s not possible.’

Fascinated by how words work
‘I’m interested in how computational systems can learn language,’ says Goldwater as she begins to explain her work. ‘And when I say computational system, it could be an actual computer or it could be the human mind – which I think of as a computational system too. It receives input, does some sort of computation and produces output.’
‘When you say you’re interested in language,’ she observes, ‘people always say “oh, so you want to be a writer or you’re interested in literature”. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’ve always been fascinated by the structural nature of language. What is it that makes Russian different from English? That’s what linguists are interested in – the scientific study of language.’

An everyday revolution
Natural language processing is something of a hot topic in the tech industry. With the arrival of Siri, Cortana and their cousins, people are becoming increasingly comfortable talking to their devices – in much the same way they became accustomed to touch based interfaces a few years ago. Of course, that’s not always been the case. ‘Not so long ago NLP was a very niche subject, ‘Dr Goldwater says. ‘If I tried to tell anybody what I was involved in – even if they worked in computer science – they had no idea what I was talking about’, she laughs. ‘Now the number of people turning up to conferences has increased massively.’