I’ve been an SLP for almost 30 years but my first degree is in Psychology and Linguistics. I fully intended to become a Psychologist  but strayed from the path and ended up in Speech Therapy. Needless to say, my fascination with our profession has always been viewed through a linguistics lens and regular readers will already have detected that. In fact, one of the luminaries of AAC, Sarah Blackstone, for many years believed I was a linguist and not an SLP, and I have been introduced as a linguist at more than one conference.
This is probably why I still like to hang out with real linguists, who are much smarter than I and from whom I continue to learn lots of new stuff. So it’s no surprise that I went along to Wednesday afternooon session entitled Natural Language processing and AAC: Current advances at the interface between technology and communication.
The presenters were more like a panel, bringing different perspectives on how the application of NLP could help the development of AAC . NLP is a cross-over field of linguistics, artificial intelligence, and computer science that deals with analyzing, understanding and generating the languages that humans use naturally in order to interface with computers in both written and spoken contexts using natural human languages instead of computer languages. The main professional body that exemplifies the scope of NLP is the Association of Computational Linguistics, which publishes the journal, Computational Linguistics, on a quarterly basis. With the latest edition including articles with titles such as A Context-Theoretic Framework for Compositionality in Distributional Semantics, and Learning Entailment Relations by Global Graph Structure Optimization, it’s not a field that SLPs are falling over themselves to join. It’s also not a journal I read regularly but then there are so many journals out there it’s impossible to keep track.
The folks were also there to promote awareness of a new special interest group called the SIG for Speech and Language Processing in Assistive Technologies, or SLPAT for short. And yes, if you misread it as “splat,” you’re OK because its members also affectionately call it “splat” as well .
For those who wonder what Natural Language Processing might offer to AAC, it’s worth bearing in mind that NLP is already being used in a number of areas that we use daily. If you’ve ever used a web-based translation system to read foreign text, then you’ve made use of NLP. If you’ve ever used a speech recognition system such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking or Microsoft Sync in your car, then you’ve benefited from NLP. And if you’ve scanned a document and had a piece of software convert it to text, you’re seeing NLP in action.
In relation to AAC, a number of research initiatives are already underway. Jeff Higginbotham from the University of New York at Buffalo is working on a “just-in-time” message system that will work with AAC devices to provide web-sourced topic-based content using internet (and intranet) natural language processing techniques. Annalu Waller from the University of Dundee is working on prediction-based phonemic AAC systems (the PhonicStick®) where NLP algorithms are used to determine which sounds are most likely to follow others. Karl Wiegard and Rupal Patel have been investigating non-syntactic word prediction to create systems that can correct user-generated utterences that have flawed syntax. And at the Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, Melanie Fried-Oken and her colleagues are working with brain-controlled interfaces and spelling systems, the operation of which can be optimized by using special NLP-based software to improve accuracy and speed of selection.
All of these are currently still in the research phase so you needn’t be asking how much you’ll need to buy one, but it’s research like this that will ultimately lead to products, even if 90% of university projects simply end up as articles in journals or a paper that ends with the immortal lines “much more research is needed.”
And if you’re looking for questions, quite a few turned up at the session, most coming from Melanie Fried-Oken who, as a clinician, really wants to see some practical, hands-on solutions. Here are some – of several – that interested me;
- Can NLP help us design systems that can adapt to the actual language used by an individual with an AAC device, and maybe even reconfigure the device as a result of this?
- Can NLP help in the tracking of the vocabulary, representation, and navigation elements of an AAC system?
- Can NLP help design systems that identify and end-user’s language level?
These resonate because they are the very same questions my collegues and I have been asking for a couple of years now, and have been slowly working towards. In the field of AAC in general, the notion of automatic data logging is not new and has been available for some time on a number of AAC devices. The fun bit is deciding where next to go with this, and how best to leverage the current data collection methodologies. As soon as there’s something to present to the world, we’ll be happy to share!
Meanwhile, for those interested in finding out more on SIG SLPAT, or even if you want to join, you can go to their web site at www.slpat.org and read about the aims of the group . There’s a special edition of the Computer Speech and Language journal out before the end of the year that will be about NLP and Assistive Technology, and the next SIG-SLPAT conference will be in 2013 in France – somewhere. There will be a call for papers later in the year so get your NLP thinking caps on and dust off that passport…
 Just a few weeks before I left for University, a friend of my sister was talking to my local newsagent about my moving and asked what I was going to study. Apparently she told him I was studying to be a psychopath. I sometimes wonder how un-wrong she may have been…
 The presenters were Kathy McCoy, University of Delaware; Annalu Waller and Alan McGregor, University of Dundee; and Melanie Fried-Oken and Brian Rourk, Oregon Health & Science University. I apologise if I missed someone.
 It’s pretty well impossible not to read SLPAT as “splat,” in the same way that fashion store French Connection: UK used the acronym FCUK on all their advertising, knowing full well that folks word read it otherwise! The company voluntarily stopped using the acronym in 2005, but not before stores such as Bloomingdales refused to handle FCUK branded items.
 I did see what would happen if I made an error and typed “splat.org” instead of “slpat.org” and found myself at a rather boring “parking site” with links to paintball activities. More fascinating was the “splat.com,” which took me to the home of the Sizzling Platter restaurant group, whose products include Little Caesars Pizza, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Sizzler Steak House.