Computer system speaks plain English (Feb, 1980)
Computer system speaks plain English
Computers may be storehouses of information, but to release it they must be addressed in a special language. Now Philips in Holland has devised a system that understands questions in English, so more people have access to the data bank. This gives an organization’s computer far wider use, and points to exciting future developments for home units.
Queries can be phrased with any choice of words or sentence structure, and the computer understands them through a three-step electronic process. First, the grammatical structure of the sentence and the logical relationships between its parts are established. For this, the primary memory stores an English grammar. In the second step, nouns and verbs are identified by reference to a data bank with a selected vocabulary related to the particular topic. Finally, the question is translated into “data-base language.” Search instructions reach the main data bank in this form, and the answer comes up on the visual display unit. If the reply is ambiguous, the computer will search for another interpretation, and the whole process is repeated.
The system, called PHILQA (Philips Question Answering), is still at the early development stage. For the first experimental tests, the data base has fictitious information about computers in use in Europe. So far, the answers are very brief, and limited to “yes” or “no,” a number, or a list of names and addresses. The system can also show favor for one of several possible answers, or indicate that no answer is available. It can’t refer back to a previous answer. —David Scott