After decades of trial and error, artificial intelligence applications that aim to understand human language are slowly starting to lose some of their brittleness. Now, a simple mathematical model developed by two psychologists at Stanford University could lead to further improvements, helping transform computers that display the mere veneer of intelligence into machines that truly understand what we are saying.
The Loebner Prize is a competition of the world's best "chatbots" - computer programs designed to simulate how a human interacts in a normal written conversation - that promises a grand prize of US$100,000 to the first program that can interact with another human in a natural way, undistinguishable from another human. The competition started in 1991, but the prize is still up for grabs and the transcripts from each year's winners tell us just how far we are (the answer: very) from ever reaching that goal.
However, there is hope yet. A new trend has emerged in the past few years and has led to the development of technologies like Siri, iPhone's "personal assistant." It entails using mathematical tools, namely probability and statistics, to try and model how people use language to communicate in social situations. The work at Stanford builds directly on this branch of research.