Via the dashing and debonair Ryan Oakley, researchers at MIT have managed to get a computer to do what most computer users never do, namely Read The Frackin’ Manual. And guess what – the computer’s performance at the task at hand improved hugely! The task in question was… playing Civilisation.
But the task isn’t the point, you see; this is about teaching machines to comprehend input in a linguistic fashion:
The MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab has a computer that now plays Civilization all by itself — and it wins nearly 80% of the time. Those are better stats than most of us could brag about, but the real win here is the fact that instruction manuals don’t explain how to win a game, just how to play it.
The results may be game-oriented, but the real purpose for the experiment was to get a computer to do more than process words as data — and to actually process them as language. In this case, the computer read instructions on how to play a rather complex game, then proceeded to not only play that game, but to play it very well.
If you take the same process and replace gaming with something more real-world applicable, like medicine or automotive tech, you could have a computer that’s able to act as more than just a reference tool. A lot more.
If I’m grokking it right, this is the opposite of the approach embodied by IBM’s Watson, which is essentially a search engine on steroids; I’m reminded again of the Chomsky/Norvig debate, and MIT’s approach here looks to be much more in the Chomsky direction. I suspect some sort of synthesis of the two approaches will bring the best results in the long run.