SALT Club meeting


January 1993

The SALT Club is an informal group of researchers, from both academic and commercial sectors, with a common interest in Speech and Language Technology (nothing to do with Strategic Arms Limitation). It is organised and minimally funded by the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry, as a side effect of the funding it provides for research work in this area together with the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), under something called the Joint Framework for Information technology (JFIT). Aside from a useful bulletin distributed to JFIT-funded projects, SALT organizes an annual workshop and provides a nexus of useful contacts. It also constitutes an expert group with some influence on government priorities for research funding in this area.

This year's SALT Club Workshop was concerned with Multimedia. Under the rather grand title "Paradigm Shift in Speech and Language Technology: Integrating with other Media", this two-day event combined a series of carefully-chosen plenary presentations and a number of small working group sessions, collectively addressing the issue of what, if anything, there might be of interest to SALT hackers in multimedia and vice versa.

The workshop began with a presentation from Graham Howard about the US Art of Memory project, which (due to the hostility of London Transport) I missed. I did however arrive in time to enjoy Barry Arons' (MIT Media Lab) round-up of work concerned with hypertext-like ways of interacting with recorded speech, ranging from intelligent telephone answering machines to 'virtual conversations'. The technically interesting part of this concerned the design of an appropriate user interface for a database of sound bites accessible by voice only. The database consisted of 13 minutes of monologue from five speakers, gathered over the telephone, which Arons had analysed into a network of some 80 discrete nodes, linked by 750 links of various types (e.g. 'summary', 'detail', 'supporting argument' etc.). It could be queried using a simple 17 word command language. The technology was impressive and sophisticated but mechanically organized snippets of spoken language cannot really be said to be conversations, although Arons did make passing reference to Grice's work in discourse analysis as providing useful models for how 'reports' from such a database might be organized.

This was followed by a more low-key presentation from Paola Fabrizi of the RNIB about the Electronic Daily Newspaper. I found this easily the most impressive project described in terms of real world applications of multimedia. Every night while the compositors are busy setting up the printed text of the Guardian, an electronic version of the same text in a specially encrypted form is broadcast via the unusued lines in teletext transmissions. Subscribers download the text into their pcs overnight, and can then `read' the paper at the same time as their sighted nbeighbours, using a voice synthesizer, large character display or transitory braille display. Paola demonstrated the system with a bottom end of the market speech synthesiser which came as somewhat of a shock after the realism of MIT's synthetic voice, but the simplicity of the interface had much to commend it. Users could scroll, and search, switch betweeen paragraph, line, word and letter mode, the latter being useful to spell out unfamiliar words. Selected stories or prtions of them can be pasted to a scrapbook etc.

Janet Cauldwell (OUP) presented the electronic OED of which any further praise would be otiose. I shall therefore remark only that this product is so wonderful its presentation and marketing could be safely left to idiots.

After lunch, we were organized into a five work groups, on a variety of occasionally overlapping topics (Organizational structures within language; database interfaces; use of nonlinguistic information in linguistics; educational applications; communications facilities). Each group had an assigned leader, a small number of thought-provoking presentations and a rapporteur charged with making proposals for ways in which new SALT-related activities could be realigned within a multimedia paradign. I joined the first group, and enjoyed brief presentations from Adam Kilgariff and Lynne Pemberton, both, in different ways, concerned with ways of structuring complex texts. The group invented an interesting application area: an intelligent agent capable of summarising or expanding the information content of individual components of a multimedia system as well as identifying and categorising the links between them. I waxed lyrical on the wonders of HyTime, TEI etc, and found myself appointed rapporteur for my pains.

Day two began with a brief hectoring from Gerry Gavigan of the DTI, the gist of which was that the SALT progrmme was likely to be axed if there was not a more enthusiastic response to its next call for proposals, provoking a certain amount of muttering about the difficulty of persuading hard-pressed commercial partners to join and the complexities of the application procedure. This was followed by a video presentation displaying results from an ESPRIT project called MMI-squared (for MultiModal Interfaces for Man-Machine Interaction) which I found slick but curiously uninventive. The previous day's workgroups then resumed.

Two further plenary presentations addressed topics of some relevance to TEI interests: one, from Arnold Smith (SRI) discussed the ubiquity of modelling techniques, (in dbms, CAD, spreadsheets, robotics etc) and the need to achieve mapping between them, which, he opined, could be done by something called "abductive equivalential translation", of which I understood just about enough to see similarities with the use of SGML: translating models clearly requires the addressing of semantic issues rather than simple data format comnversion. It also facilitates re-use of encoded knowledge: as an unexpected application area he mentioned integrated manufacturing systems for which he claimed that language translation methiods were directly applicable. The second, from John Lee, (Edinburgh) talked at some length on the different communicative aspects of different modalities and appropriate bases for choosing amongst them, for which he proposed 'specivity' as an interesting metric. Like Smith (and others) he saw the significant contribution that SALT could makein terms of the application of a discourse model.

After lunch the rapporteurs were invited to present the findings of their groups. These are to be edited up into a report for the DTI, which I will circulate to anyone interested when it is completed. The information handling group had seemingly decided that linguistic description was a better way of querying large databases (specific instances included images and distributed dbs) than graphical methods. Re-expression of queries in different modes was a good way of checking that they were being correctly interpreted. Their new project was a voice input/recognition system for attaching annotation to large quantities of images or paperwork. The Education workgroup, on which Nick Ostler reported, had surveyed a number of interesting applications, but had chiefly highlighted a checklist of the problems of multimedia developmt (high cost, dangers of rigidity, difficulty in carryover, copyright problems etc). The workgroup on 'nonlinguistic issues' (Chris Mellish reported) had also identified a large number of problem areas and research opportunities, from which I recall as particularly interesting the following: combining automatic lip-reading with speech recognition (useful in noisy discos); research on the semantics of body language and gesture; application of linguistic anmalysis to existing graphical interfces etc. The telecoms group, reported on by Martin Crossley (BT), began by positing the widespread availability of a number of emergent technologies (wideband networking into the home, videophones, teleconferencing, teleworking, teleshopping etc). In the short term they predicted speech controlled telephones with more intelligent conversational interfaces; in the medium term, bettwer interactive educational tools (necessary for any expansion of distance learning). In the longer term they foresaw proper multimodal access to distributed computer systems, linguistic interaction with intelligent search agents, ways of intelligent topical indexing of video data.

The workshop wound up, like many others, with discussion of ways in which funding might be obtained for further SALT/Multimedia research, with five possible being proposed. The DARPA model, in which there is a predefined goal for which consortia are invited to compete, with payment contingent on their achieving specified targets, was liked by some as much as it was disliked by others. Alternatives included the notion of a centrally funded institute and more precisely defined contractual arrangements (as in LRE). There was a familiar call for outreach to other related communities. Ostler closed with a review of the current status of the SALT club itself, now no longer bankrolled by DTI, it transpired, but by his own company.