Artificial Intelligence–does it really understand what we’ve said?

Today I had my monthly zoom meeting with my linguistic colleagues, and we found ourselves talking about artificial intelligence. One of my colleagues, Debbie Dahl, recently wrote, along with Christy Doran, an editorial for Speech Technology Magazine entitled “Does your Intelligent Assistant Really Understand you?”

To address this, they put together a list of queries of the sort one might ask of an intelligent assistant like, say, Siri or Alexa.

Here are some examples of what happened.

Q: what is the nearest star besides the sun?
A: No exact results matching The Star were found. Here are several pubs instead sorted by distance excluding the Sun. [The Star and The Sun are both pubs]

Q: Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?
A: According to, Tuesday is the day between Monday and Wednesday…

Q: Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?
A: No, Wednesday is not Tuesday. Tuesday is on July 21, 2020.

Debbie tells me that most of our successful interactions with IAs are successful because things are hard-coded into the underlying linguistic software. For example, if you say “seven o’clock”, IAs are programmed to say “AM or PM?”. They’re also programmed to understand key phases like “Should I take my umbrella?” But deviate just a bit–even by emphasizing a different word–and things quickly fall apart.

Thus, much of what passes for understanding is really just hard coding combined with simple mappings between key words and phrases, on one hand, and on the other, look-up results that are shoehorned into canned templates.

What the user’s words actually mean, and what her communicative intent might be, are totally beyond IAs–and, for that matter, AI.

The authors conclude by asking:

Is the current approach to development where more and more data is shoveled into a machine learning system like building a ladder to the moon? Do we need fundamentally new techniques to expand system capabilities to handling harder questions?

Good question.

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