DFKI-LT - What is Language Technology?
by Hans Uszkoreit
Language technology — sometimes also referred to as human language
technology — comprises computational methods, computer programs and
electronic devices that are specialized for analyzing, producing or
modifying texts and speech. These systems must be based on some
knowledge of human language. Therefore language technology defines
the engineering branch of computational linguistics.
We teach computers to communicate with people.
Although existing LT systems are far from achieving human ability,
they have numerous possible applications. The goal is to create software
products that have some knowledge of human language. Such products are
going to change our lives. They are urgently needed for improving
human-machine interaction since the main obstacle in the interaction
beween human and computer is a communication problem. Today's computers do
not understand our language but computer languages are difficult to learn
and do not correspond to the structure of human thought. Even if the
language the machine understands and its domain of discourse are very
restricted, the use of human language can increase the acceptance of
software and the productivity of its users.
Friendly software should listen and speak.
Natural language interfaces enable the user to communicate with the
computer in French, English, German, or another human language. Some
applications of such interfaces are database queries, information retrieval
from texts, so-called expert systems, and robot control. Current advances
in the recognition of spoken language improve the usability of many types
of natural language systems. Communication with computers using spoken
language will have a lasting impact upon the work environment, completely
new areas of application for information technology will open up. However,
spoken language needs to be combined with other modes of communication such
as pointing with mouse or finger. If such multimodal communication is
finally embedded in an effective general model of cooperation, we have
succeeded in turning the machine into a partner.
Machines can also help people communicate with each other.
Much older than communication problems between human beings and machines
are those between people with different mother tongues. One of the original
aims of computational linguistics has always been fully automatic translation
between human languages. From bitter experience scientists have realized that
they are still far away from achieving the ambitious goal of translating
unrestricted texts. Nevertheless, they have been able to create software
systems that simplify the work of human translators and clearly improve
their productivity. Less than perfect automatic translations can also be
of great help to information seekers who have to search through large
amounts of texts in foreign languages.
Language is the fabric of the web.
The rapid growth of the Internet/WWW and the emergence of the information
society poses exciting new challenges to language technology. Although the
new media combine text, graphics, sound and movies, the whole world of
multimedia information can only be structured, indexed and navigated through
language. For browsing, navigating, filtering and processing the information
on the web, we need software that can get at the contents of documents.
Language technology for content management is a necessary precondition for
turning the wealth of digital information into collective knowledge. The
increasing multilinguality of the web constitutes an additional challenge
for language technology. The global web can only be mastered with the help
of multilingual tools for indexing and navigating. Systems for crosslingual
information and knowledge management will surmount language barriers for
e-commerce, education and international cooperation.
Our research combines ambitious visions and realistic applications.
The future of language technology will be determined by the growing need
for user-friendly software. Even though the successful simulation of
human language competence is not to be expected in the near future,
researchers have numerous realistic short-term goals involving the design,
realization and maintenance of systems which facilitate everyday work,
such as grammar checkers for word processing programs, intelligent email
sorting and response generation, document categorization and summarization
software, and systems for extracting selected information from large volumes
of text. Thus work on language technology spans a wide spectrum of
ambitious tasks ranging from the study of human language and thought via
the development of novel computational techniques all the way to the
marketing of profitable LT products.