Fancy having a chat with your computer? Thanks to computer scientist Professor Mark Sanderson your devices may soon be primed for a deeper kind of conversation.
Sanderson chalks up his career choice to chance.
It was while job searching that the Director of RMIT University’s Information and Systems (Engineering) Enabling Capability Platform “fell into” the world of research and search engines.
“I’d finished my university degree in Glasgow, was looking for work and a job came along helping to build a search engine for the Financial Times,” Sanderson says.
“That was in the late 80s. I really enjoyed it and managed to get a scholarship to do a PhD.
“I think I’m quite lucky. I was doing this research when the internet was first taking off and when search engines became big, so it’s been a case of right place, right time.”
Ahead of the curve three decades ago, Sanderson is still trend-setting today, particularly in the field of online search.
He and his RMIT colleagues are exploring how to make search engines better at listening so they can answer our questions before we ask them.
“There have been some big advances in computer science in the last few years that have allowed speech recognition to become much more accurate,” Sanderson says.
“Today, we have search engines that answer back when you speak: such as Apple’s ‘Siri’, Google’s ‘Home’, Microsoft’s ‘Cortana’ and Amazon’s ‘Alexa’.”
The problem with these interfaces is that besides quizzing your machine on the weather, the latest football results or “who George Clooney is married to”, the conversations tend to be more pro forma than profound. Another challenge is that these chats aren’t fluent or intuitive.
But what if your search engine could actively listen to what was being said around it?
“In collaboration with researchers in Japan, we’ve recorded conversations between people to try to understand how you might go about building a search engine that would actually help users,” says Sanderson.
“A really clever search engine might listen to our conversation and, for example, throw up a video about what I've been talking about.
“Obviously, there are privacy issues. The idea of a computer eavesdropping sounds a bit ominous. But, for us, the initial question is simply can we make this work?”
It’s this kind of blue sky thinking Sanderson applies in his job at RMIT every day.
In his role as Director, he is bringing his colleagues and their exceptional work together to seek solutions to a wide range of challenges across computer science, maths and statistics, business computing and IT, and electrical engineering.
This approach could lead to new horizons across a range of IT-related research fields.
“I think that’s been the most enjoyable thing about this role so far – discovering how much really good research is done here, and how many ways RMIT researchers are applying their talent and thinking to improve society and solve complex problems every day.”
Story: James Giggacher