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Breaking through the computer/human language barrier

By Ed Brock

One could call Alison Alvarez of Jonesboro an erstwhile Dr. Dolittle of the computer world.

A student of both classical Japanese and computer science, 22-year-old Alvarez is hoping to combine those two fields when she goes to study in a graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this fall.

And she has two full scholarships available to help her do it, one from the National Science Foundation and the other from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

"I can only have one and I still haven't decided," Alvarez said.

Alvarez already has a bachelor's degree in computer science and Japanese from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She became fascinated with artificial intelligence when, at 17, she underwent a procedure to have titanium springs and rods attached to her vertebrae to correct a severe case of scoliosis.

"After becoming partially artificial myself, I have had a different way of looking at artificial life," Alvarez said in her biography provided by the Cooke Foundation.

Another childhood interest, the use of the atomic bomb during World War II, led to Alvarez's fascination with Japanese culture. In fact, during a six-month period she spent studying abroad in the Aichi district in Japan she made a trip to Hiroshima and visited the museum there dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the world's first atomic blast.

"It was really kind of wrenching," Alvarez said. "I couldn't believe the kinds of things they had on display there."

Currently Alvarez is in New York visiting a friend but in July she will return to Japan for a three-week workshop on Japanese pottery, another of her loves. She's looking forward to making her return.

"When I first went to Japan I thought I would hate it. I thought it would be very sexist," Alvarez said. "But I had a great host family. I really love Japan."

Her parents, Roland and Susan Alvarez, still aren't completely used to having their daughter roaming the world, but that's the way it is, Roland Alvarez said.

"She just likes to travel to expand her horizons," Alvarez said.

Travel will be part of her initial studies at Carnegie Mellon as well when she begins working on a project called "Avenue" that aims to preserve some of the world's disappearing languages. One such language is spoken among a few dozen people in Mexico, another by some islanders in the Philippines, and then there is the language of the Ainu people of Japan.

"They'll actually fly us out to different locations to speak to these people," Alvarez said.

But her eventual goal is to find a way to teach computers to truly understand human speech. Her knowledge of Japanese will be useful in that because it depends heavily on context and is an "Altaic" language, a language family in which the verb always comes at the end.

"They're basically the most difficult language if your going to use natural languages," Alvarez said.

One of the more difficult things to teach a computer is how to understand the overlying narrative and "reference resolution," Alvarez said. In other words, when the word "they" appears in a lengthy transcript the program has to be able to understand which "they" are being referred to according to the context of the overall conversation.

His daughter has always been bright, Roland Alvarez said, and they did about as much as any other parent would to encourage her academic achievement.

"We didn't push her hard," Alvarez said.

Alvarez is one of 43 young people drawn from a pool of 842 applicants for the $50,000 a year Cooke Foundation scholarship.

"Individuals had to show not only exceptional academic ability but also a strong will to succeed and other qualities including demonstrated critical thinking, a love of music or art and appreciation for literature," said Matthew J. Quinn, executive director of the Cooke Foundation.

Considering the current economic downturn that has resulted in an increase in people going back to school, Alvarez said she considers herself very lucky to have qualified for the scholarship.

"I'm a little bit nervous. I've never had the opportunity to do this before," Alvarez said. "I'm just traveling around and enjoying my summer before I have to work really hard."