Visiting Fulbright Scholars Aim to Make Computers Talk

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Belarusian linguistics experts research artificial intelligence at Rowan.

For the most part, only in science fiction do computers really talk.

There's Hal, the supercomputer in 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Robot, from TV's Lost in Space; and, of course, the Star Trek computer (who's name was just Computer).

But research into artificial intelligence by two visiting Rowan scholars could help computers actually speak.

Irina Oukhvanova and Aliona Popova, faculty at Belarusian State University in Minsk, are visiting Fulbright scholars spending about four months conducting research in the Computer Science department at Rowan. Their work applies linguistics – the scientific study of human language – to computer science to make incremental changes in how computers "speak" with people.

"We study meaning and communication, not only between people but also between people and computers," said Oukhvanova, a professor of theoretical linguistics whose work involves the application of advanced content theory to make computers understand humans better.

Popova, an associate professor of English and speech communication, said the work, by its nature, is slow and methodical.

"Step by step, artificial intelligence becomes refined and polite," she said.

Oukhvanova said there is a natural overlap between linguistics and computer science and its exploration is vital if communication between man and machine is to progress.

Computer Science Assistant Professor Bernard Sypniewski, who was instrumental in bringing Oukhvanova and Popova to Rowan, said he is working with them on qualitative research that may ultimately affect a great many aspects of modern life.

"Our work just doesn't look at words and syntax," said Sypniewski. "Our analyses can be useful in improving various forms of communication –doctor-patient communication, teacher-student communication, perhaps even on-line communication."

Timothy Torre, director of Rowan's International Center, the campus office that facilitates travel abroad and exchange programs for students and faculty, said research by the Belarusian scholars benefits the university in several ways.

"Visiting scholars contribute a unique perspective to the body of research and help advance Rowan's reputation, both here and abroad," Torre said. "Often this relationship blossoms into a larger institutional or exchange relationship that can benefit the university long term."

Rowan, which has had 11 students win Fulbright scholarships between 2000 and 2011, has three recent graduates in the program this year. Those students, Mary Spanarkel, Simone Miliaresis and Melissa Genovese, are spending the school year teaching English in Turkey, Cyprus and Vietnam, respectively.

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