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Press Release

Anne Watzman, Carnegie Mellon
Bob Grove, Port Authority

For immediate release:
December 3, 2002

Carnegie Mellon Language Technologies Experts Will Use $650,000 NSF Grant To Make Port Authority's Phone-Based Information More Accessible to Elderly

Pittsburgh—Scientists at the Language Technologies Institute (LTI) in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science have received a $650,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to work with the Port Authority of Allegheny County to make its phone-based information services more user friendly for elderly and non-native speakers.

The project, called "Let's Go," will explore how to make messages relayed over the telephone more understandable to the elderly while also looking at how to better understand non-natives when they speak. Systems Scientist Maxine Eskenazi and Research Computer Scientist Alan Black received the grant from NSF's Universal Access Program to study the use of phone dialogue systems by elderly and non-native speakers. They will be working with the Port Authority to build a scheduling information system that will enable these particular users and others to obtain bus and light rail schedules any time, day or night.

In preliminary studies, Eskenazi and Black found that elderly listeners have a better grasp of information when their attention is attracted by the system before it begins to speak by pausing, for instance It appears that as people age, they are less able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Thus, the system they build will be designed to attract and keep the attention of the elderly caller.

"We're using speech recognition and human-machine dialogue systems to build something that will be able to give the user information," said Eskenazi. "Many of these phone systems are not understood by elderly people, and non-native speakers are not understood by the systems."

She noted that if a machine is speaking for long periods of time, redundancy needs to be introduced into the message.

"If someone asks you to repeat something, the normal reaction is to say it louder," she said. "Here, we need to slow down, add pauses and articulate better."

Issues with non-native speakers are somewhat different, Eskenazi noted. "When non-native speakers talk to the system, it doesn't understand what they say because their accents and pronunciation are so different. We need to train the system to understand their pronunciation and, because they don't know the English vocabulary, we need to detect where they're using incorrect grammar and, in a subtle way, show them how to use it correctly."

In addition to Port Authority experts, Eskenazi and Black will be working with LTI colleagues, including Senior Research Scientist Lori Levin, Visiting Scientist Rita Singh and graduate students Antoine Raux and Brian Langner, to bring the project to fruition.

"Port Authority is very pleased to have the opportunity to work with Carnegie Mellon's talented team on a project that will directly benefit our customers while advancing a promising technology," said Port Authority Chief Technology Officer Maureen L. Bertocci.

Funding officials at NSF are enthusiastic about the potential of the "Let's Go" project, saying that it will have a difference in people's lives.

"This proposal was highly regarded by a National Science Foundation panel comprised of peer reviewers," said program officer Karen Kukich. "All projects at NSF are judged on two criteria, scientific merit and broader impacts. This project scored high on both. The panel was also impressed by the enthusiastic support of the Port Authority."

At NSF, we're always asked to justify our decisions," added NSF program officer Mary Harper. "The research clearly has scientific merit while addressing the needs of two populations that need help. This work will make a difference in people's lives."


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