A couple of days ago, I gave a talk at the Centre Cournot on the topic "Why Human Language Technology (almost) works" ("Pourquoi les technologies de la langue et du discours marchent enfin (ou presque)"), and for the introduction, I tried giving Google Now a few questions and instructions on my Android phone.
In case you're not familiar with this feature, you start it up by saying "OK Google", followed by the question you want it to answer or the instruction you want it to follow.
And since the starting-point of my talk was that HLT now actually works well enough to be useful, I was glad to see that my little experiment worked pretty well.
Here are the first few things I tried:
Question: "OK Google, what is the French word for 'dog'?"
Transcription: "what is the French word for dog?"
Answer (spoken as well as shown in text): "chien"
Question: "OK Google, what is 15 degrees centigrade in Fahrenheit?"
Transcription: "what is 15 degrees centigrade in Fahrenheit?"
Answer (spoken as well as shown in text): "15 degrees Celsius is 59 degrees Fahrenheit."
Question: "OK Google, What's the name of the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania?"
Transcription: "What's the name of the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania?"
Answer: A page of search links, with the Daily Pennsylvanian at the top.
Question: "OK Google, Note to self — buy paper towels."
Transcription: "note to self buy paper towels"
Question: "what is the URL of Language Log?"
Transcription: "what is the URL of language log"
Answer: A list of search results, topped by the Language Log Facebook page.
At this point, I began to worry that the "almost" qualifier of my title might be in danger, at least without introducing some background noise or simulating laryngitis, so I tried something weird. One of the few books that I brought with me to France was ggplot2 by Hadley Wickham, and it was sitting on the corner of my desk, so I asked
Question: "OK Google, when was Hadley Wickham's book ggplot2 published?"
Transcription: "when was Hadley Wickham zbook ggplot2 published"
Answer: Page of search results with the Amazon listing for ggplot2 at the top.
How they got zbook into their lexicon and language model is a mystery, but the whole thing still basically worked, even if getting to the answer required drilling down into the listing for the book. So going further into the improbable, I asked:
Question: "OK Google, what is the word for 'dog' in Hausa?"
Transcription: "what is the word for dog in hausa"
Answer: "Here is your translation:
In search of some more convincing failures, I turned to Google Translate. And there I confirmed my prior belief that pronouns and idiomatic fixed expressions sometimes remain a problem.
For example, in translating sentences from the Cournot Center's "Présentation" page, I found things like this:
Le Centre Cournot est une association soutenue par la Fondation Cournot, placée sous l’égide de la Fondation de France. Elle porte le nom du mathématicien et philosophe franc-comtois Augustin Cournot (1801-1877), reconnu de longue date comme un pionnier de la discipline économique.
The Cournot Centre is an association supported by the Cournot Foundation, under the aegis of the Fondation de France. It is named after the mathematician and philosopher Franche-Comte Augustin Cournot (1801-1877), long recognized as a pioneer of economic discipline.
The phrase "la discipline économique" ought to be "the discipline of economics", not "economic discipline", which sounds like another way of saying "balanced budgets" or the like.
Google Translate did correctly render elle as "it" rather than "she". But a bit later in the text, we get two instances of il referring to "le centre", where the first one is translated as "it" but the second one as "he":
Le Centre n’est pas un laboratoire de recherche, il n’est pas non plus un centre de réflexion. Il jouit de l’indépendance singulière d’un catalyseur.
The Centre is not a research laboratory, it is not a think tank. He enjoys the singular independence of a catalyst.
Finally, I tried the opening lines of a recent roman policier I've been reading, Yasmina Khadra's Le dingue au bistouri:
Il y a quatre choses que je déteste.
Un: qu'on boive dans mon verre.
Deux: qu'on se mouche dans un restaurant.
Trois: qu'on me pose un lapin.
There are four things I hate.
A: we drink in my glass.
Two: we will fly in a restaurant.
Three: I get asked a rabbit.
Finally, some support for my "almost"! The first two instances of on should be translated as "somebody", not "we"; on se mouche means "somebody blows their nose", not "we will fly"; and on me pose un lapin mean "somebody stands me up", not "I get asked a rabbit" (though "I get asked" for "on me pose" is a good try…).
And a final practical example: on my way out the door, planning to walk to the location of the talk, I asked
"OK Google, Navigate to Télécom Paris Tech"
with my best French pronunciation of the destination, and got the completely unhelpful transcription: "Navigate to telecom Perry tech". (It seems that there is a "Perry Technical Institute" in Yakima, WA — and Google helpfully told me about all the possible air travel connections…)
But when I asked again with the normal English pronunciation of "Paris", the request worked, and landed me in Google maps navigation with an appropriate destination.