February 28, 2005

Got some dawgs runnin' around heah: a natural language processing story

The dream of computers being able to understand our spoken requests for information over the phone has been part of the artificial intelligence and natural language processing research mythos for decades. But intractable problems remain. A transcriber working for a company attempting to implement voice-driven computer directory assistance (my informant cannot be named) recently transcribed a call in which the usual "What city, please?" directory assistance greeting prompted the following from an African American woman caller in her 60s:

Well, I am in Preston, Maryland, but what I want is a number to some dawg catcher. I got some dawgs runnin' around heah, and I don't know who dawgs they is, and they pit bulls, and I want somebody to come and get 'em.

Work continues on deciding how exactly the phone number look-up system should be programmed to respond in such cases. It's probably a case for "Please wait while I connect you to an operator." Of course, it is known that when problems with animals come up, human operators can also run into intelligibility difficulties.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 28, 2005 07:06 PM