Government Working on Human-Computer Communication

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is in the midst of working on an interesting new project. (Then again most of its projects are interesting.) It’s exploring removing the barrier between humans and computers.

Could it have an impact on your organization going forward? DARPA says, “The lifelong human imperative to communicate is so strong that people talk not only to other people but also to their pets, their plants and their computers. Unlike pets and plants, computers might one day reciprocate.

DARPA’s new Communicating with Computers (CwC) program aims to develop technology to turn computers into good communicators.” Just for a little background, DARPA was established in 1958 to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.

Communicating with Computers is looking at several coordinated processes. They are, at the most basic levels, how a speaker expresses thoughts verbally; how the listener hears those thoughts and interprets them; and, how verbal communication is affected by context and ambiguities in language. To this point in time, those processes have presented a challenge for machines – regardless of what you saw when Watson played Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!

In an announcement about the work, Paul Cohen, DARPA program manager said, “Human communication feels so natural that we don’t notice how much mental work it requires. But try to communicate while you’re doing something else –the high accident rate among people who text while driving says it all– and you’ll quickly realize how demanding it is.”

Intimidated yet? You should be. Just think of how poorly those automated airline reservation system robots work when you call in. Imagine trying to extrapolate the complexity with more demanding conversations beyond “Speak to an agent!”

Interestingly, the DARPA approach to human-machine communication is almost being approached like an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. The program folks know that machines are foreigners when it comes to comprehending just what humans are trying to say.

The Communicating with Computers program, according to DARPA, will set tasks in which humans and machines must communicate to do a job. One task will involve collaborative storytelling, in which a human and a machine will take turns contributing sentences until they have written a short story.

Cohen said, “”This is a parlor game for humans, but a tremendous challenge for computers. To do it well, the machine must keep track of the ideas in the story, then generate an idea about how to extend the story and express this idea in language.”

But it’s not all fun and games with the Communicating with Computers program. It has a much higher-level goal: building computer-based models of the complicated molecular processes that cause cells to become cancerous.

According to DARPA, computers are starting to do this already in its Big Mechanism program. However, they are not working in tandem with human biologists. That means neither side’s strengths are being used effectively. DARPA calls this a shortcoming, obviously. It said machines are able to read data more quickly than we mere humans (my words – not there’s). But machines don’t read as deeply.

Also, the machines can turn out numerous molecular models – but humans are better at determining if the proposed models are biologically plausible. This being the military there is also a national defense aspect to the research. (This is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency after all.)

DARPA wants to be able to exploit the various positive attributes of humans and machines when it comes to intelligence gathering. The machines’ strengths are their ability to collect and store much more data than humans could ever hope to. But, humans can interpret the data and give it a narrative that machines can’t.

It’s just like the big data problem you as a CIO are trying to conquer. Intelligence is gathered in our national defense computers but the humans trying to interpret it are being overwhelmed.

“Because humans and machines have different abilities, collaborations between them might be very productive. But today we view computers as tools to be activated by a few clicks or keywords, in large part because we are separated by a language barrier,” Cohen said. “The goal of CwC is to bridge that barrier, and in the process encourage the development of new problem-solving technologies.”

Once that is cracked by the government expect it to become commercially available rapidly. Start thinking about the conversation you want to have with your company’s computers.

 

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.