The man who helped invent virtual assistants thinks they’re doomed without a new AI approach [Technology Review]

Boris Katz
March 13, 2019

Boris Katz has spent his career trying to help machines master language. He believes that current AI techniques aren’t enough to make Siri or Alexa truly smart.

by Will Knight

iri, Alexa, Google Home—technology that parses language is increasingly finding its way into everyday life.

Boris Katz, a principal research scientist at MIT, isn’t that impressed. Over the past 40 years, Katz has made key contributions to the linguistic abilities of machines. In the 1980s, he developed START, a system capable of responding to naturally phrased queries. The ideas used in START helped IBM’s Watson win on Jeopardy! and laid the groundwork for today’s chattering artificial servants.

But Katz now worries that the field suffers from a reliance on decades-old ideas, and that these ideas won’t give us machines with real intelligence. I met with him to discuss the current limits of AI assistants and to hear his thoughts on where research needs to go if they’re ever going to get smarter. 

How did you become interested in making computers use language?

I first encountered computers in the 1960s as an undergraduate student at Moscow University. The particular machine I used was a mainframe called BESM-4. One could only use octal code to communicate with it. My first computer project involved teaching a computer to read, understand, and solve math problems. 

Then I developed a poetry-writing computer program. I still remember standing in the machine room waiting to see the next poem generated by the machine. I was stunned by the beauty of the poems; they appeared to be produced by an intelligent entity. And I knew then and there that I want to work for the rest of my life on creating intelligent machines and finding ways to communicate with them.

What do you make of Siri, Alexa, and other personal assistants?

It’s funny to talk about, because on the one hand, we are very proud of this incredible progress—everybody in their pocket has something that we helped create here many, many years ago, which is wonderful...

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