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 BUSINESS

Getting To Know Us Humans
Entrepreneur Aims To Help Computers Learn To Understand Spoken English

November 28, 2001
By JOHN M. MORAN, Courant Staff Writer

Kevin Dowd is fluent in computer-speak.

But after years of writing computer code and issuing arcane commands, Dowd wants to turn the tables. It's time, he says, for computers to speak English.

"Humans are everywhere. Computers are everywhere. But we're still talking different languages," Dowd said. "The goal for me is to get something that you can talk to."

Enter Brainhat Corp., Dowd's new software start-up in East Hartford, which aims to bridge the language gap between man and machine by helping computers learn to understand spoken English.

The launch of Brainhat comes at a time of renewed interest in using voice to direct computers. Faster processors, better software and the spreading use of cellphones and other wireless devices mean the field is ripe for an advance that would allow consumers to get information and issue commands in conversation-like fashion.

If science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had been right, people would already be chatting away with computers like the HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

That hasn't happened, of course. But some progress has been made in training computers to hear spoken words. Voice recognition software, for example, already allows people to dictate text and issue simple verbal commands to personal computers.

But to Dowd, that merely scratches the surface of what's possible.

"We've conquered the menu," he said. "But this is sort of pressing buttons with your tongue." Consequently, most PC users are still typing on the keyboard and clicking on the mouse to get things done on their computer.

Dowd's vision is to combine voice recognition with a kind of artificial intelligence. Together, they would allow the computer not only to hear what's said, but also to interpret that speech and act on it.

"The one thing that still isn't solved is: How do you represent knowledge and manipulate it so that you can talk to computers and have a conversation with them?" Dowd said.

That question first fascinated Dowd two decades ago when he was studying computer programming at the University of Connecticut. In the years since then, he has worked for corporate information technology departments and built his own technology business, Atlantic Computing, which he sold two years ago.

Dowd later served as president of U.S. operations for Articon-Integralis, a computer integration and security firm. But he continued to pursue his interest in natural language processing as a kind of hobby. He recently resigned his post at Articon-Integralis to devote himself full time to Brainhat.

Dowd has had some success building models of his language-processing software. But don't be looking for the HAL 9000 or "David," the robotic boy from Steven Spielberg's movie "AI," to emerge from an East Hartford office any time soon.

Dowd said the key to making computers listen and understand is to sharply limit the subject matter they must deal with at any one time. Wide-open conversations are far too complex to tackle with today's technology. But a simple exchange involving a single subject - such as the weather, or movie listings, or train schedules - is much easier to manage.

"It's a long way from talking to your barber, but it's not so far from talking to the ticket taker," Dowd said.

Brainhat's first-generation software, which is demonstrated on its website at www.brainhat.com, allows the computer to engage in simple conversations about the weather, restaurant food, statues and spiders.

Dowd hopes to enhance the program over time, introducing more and more subjects until the software is able to deal with a variety of common interactions.

Eugene Santos, an associate computer science professor at the University of Connecticut, thinks Brainhat's idea of tackling limited subjects is the correct approach.

"When you take that path, it's certainly very, very feasible," Santos said. "There's a barrier there that has nothing to do with voice recognition and everything to do with the complexity of making an inference about what somebody's saying."

But Drew McDermott, a computer science professor at Yale University, cautioned that natural language programming has thus far had comparatively little success.

As an example, he cited an Internet search engine called AskJeeves.com that allows users to type in English language questions about the information they seek. "In my experience, it didn't do any better than a keyword search," McDermott said.

Progress on voice recognition and artificial intelligence tends to be incremental, McDermott said. "It's always a big mistake to expect some big breakthough because your expectations get pretty high," he said. "If somebody's expecting it to behave like the little boy robot in Spielberg's movie, that's not going to happen for a very long time."

Other companies are working in the field, including large research teams at corporations such as IBM. But Dowd said this is an area in which a small, well focused organization can outdo a larger competitor.

Brainhat has no clients or formal product lines as yet. Dowd is funding the company, in part, with the proceeds from selling his last company, Atlantic Computing. He expects to seek venture capital financing as the project is refined.

If a computer could be made to understand English, what could it be used for? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

Imagine, for example, a computer that could manage household tasks and provide information - all in response to normal speech. What time is it? What's the weather going to be like tomorrow? What's in the fridge? Turn down the air conditioning a little. Set the alarm clock for 6:30 a.m. How much heating oil is left in the tank? What was my credit card bill last month?

Dowd thinks a variety of other applications will emerge in time. Perhaps talking computers in cars. Perhaps talking information kiosks in stores, public transit stations and tourist attractions. Perhaps entertainment options, such as a "Jeopardy"-like computer quiz show.

"It could be just for pure fun, if you like," Dowd said. "I like the idea of yelling at the house."

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