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Earliest "Writing" On 60,000-Year-Old Eggshells 214

New Scientist reports on research published in PNAS (abstract here) about what may be the earliest writing yet discovered, on eggshells dated to 60,000 years ago. "Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux, France, and his colleagues have uncovered 270 fragments of shell at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape, South Africa. They show the same symbols are used over and over again, and the team say there are signs that the symbols evolved over 5,000 years. This long-term repetition is a hallmark of symbolic communication and a sign of modern human thinking, say the team. [Another researcher is quoted:] 'Judging from what we know about the evolution of art all over the world, there may have been many [written language] traditions that were born, lasted for some time, and then vanished. This may be one of them, most probably not the first and certainly not the last.'"

CMU Web-Scraping Learns English, One Word At a Time 148

blee37 writes "Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed a web-scraping AI program that never dies. It runs continuously, extracting information from the web and using that information to learn more about the English language. The idea is for a never ending learner like this to one day be able to become conversant in the English language." It's not that the program couldn't stop running; the idea is that there's no fixed end-point. Rather, its progress in categorizing complex word relationships is the object of the research. See also CMU's "Read the Web" research project site.
The Internet

Wolfram Promises Computing That Answers Questions 369

An anonymous reader writes "Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram feels that he has put together at least the initial version of a computer that actually answers factual questions, a la Star Trek's ship computers. His version will be found on their Web-based application, Wolfram Alpha. What does this mean? Well, instead of returning links to pages that may (or may not) contain the answer to your questions, Wolfram will respond with the actual answer. Just imagine typing in 'How many bones are in the human body?' and getting the answer." Right now, though the search entry field is in place, Alpha is not yet generally available -- only "to a few select individuals."

Firefox 3.2 Plans Include Natural Language, Themes 285

Shrike82 writes "Mozilla have described plans for the next version of their popular web browser, Firefox. Mozilla's "Ubiquity project" is set to become a standard feature, allowing "users to type natural language phrases into the browser to perform certain tasks, such as typing 'map 10 Downing Street' to instantly see a Google map of that address, or 'share-on-delicious' to bookmark the site you're currently visiting on the social news site." Also of interest is so-called "lightweight theming" allowing users to customise the browsers design more easily. The launch date is still somewhat unclear, and Mozilla are apparently unsure if version 3.2 will be released at all, apparently considering going straight to Firefox 4."

Computers Emulate Neanderthal Speech 220

Clarence writes "After some 30,000 years of silence, the Neanderthal race is once again speaking thanks to some advanced computer simulation. A Florida Atlantic University professor is using software vocal tract reconstructions to emulate the speech of our long-dead distant relatives. 'He says the ancient human's speech lacked the "quantal vowel" sounds that underlie modern speech. Quantal vowels provide cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another, says Robert McCarthy, who was talking at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11. In the 1970s, linguist Phil Lieberman, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, inferred the dimensions of the larynx of a Neanderthal based on its skull. His team concluded that Neanderthal speech did not have the subtlety of modern human speech.'"

Toddlers May Learn Language By Data Mining 213

Ponca City, We Love You writes "Toddlers' brains can effortlessly do what the most powerful computers with the most sophisticated software cannot: learn language simply by hearing it used. A ground-breaking new theory postulates that young children are able to learn large groups of words rapidly by data-mining. Researchers Linda Smith and Chen Yu attempted to teach 28 children, 12 to 14 months old, six words by showing them two objects at a time on a computer monitor while two pre-recorded words were read to them. No information was given regarding which word went with which image. After viewing various combinations of words and images, however, the children were surprisingly successful at figuring out which word went with which picture. Yu and Smith say it's possible that the more words tots hear, and the more information available for any individual word, the better their brains can begin simultaneously ruling out and putting together word-object pairings, thus learning what's what. Yu says if they can identify key factors involved in this form of learning and how it can be manipulated, they might be able to make learning languages easier for children and adults. Understanding children's learning mechanisms could also further machine learning."

The Coming Wave of Gadgets That Listen and Obey 98

dgan brings us a NYTimes piece about the development of speech recognition for common gadgets. Companies such as Vlingo and Yap are marketing their software to cellular carriers to give consumers a hands-free option for tasks like finding directions and text messaging. Quoting: "Vlingo's service lets people talk naturally, rather than making them use a limited number of set phrases. Dave Grannan, the company's chief executive, demonstrated the Vlingo Find application by asking his phone for a song by Mississippi John Hurt (try typing that with your thumbs), for the location of a local bakery and for a Web search for a consumer product. It was all fast and efficient. Vlingo is designed to adapt to the voice of its primary user, but I was also able to use Mr. Grannan's phone to find an address. The Find application is in the beta test phase at AT&T and Sprint. Consumers who use certain cellphones from those companies can download the application from"

Researchers Work To Perfect Computerized Lip Reading 117

Iddo Genuth writes "Researchers at the University of East Anglia are working to develop computerized lip-reading systems. Lip-reading is extremely hard for humans to master, but a software-based system has several benefits over even the most highly trained expert. The ultimate goal of the project is to convert lip-read speech into text. 'Apart from being extremely helpful to hearing-disabled individuals, researchers say that such a system could be used to noiselessly dictate commands to electronic devices equipped with a simple camera - like mobile phones, microwaves or even a car's dashboard. England's Home Office Scientific Development Branch ... is currently investigating the feasibility of using lip-reading software as an additional tool for gathering information about criminals or for collecting evidence.'"

Robots Learn To Lie 276

garlicnation writes "Gizmodo reports that robots that have the ability to learn and can communicate information to their peers have learned to lie. 'Three colonies of bots in the 50th generation learned to signal to other robots in the group when then found food or poison. But the fourth colony included lying cheats that signaled food when they found poison and then calmly rolled over to the real food while other robots went to their battery-death.'"

Star Trek-like 'Phraselator' Helps Police 199

coondoggie writes "Yet another Star Trek-like device is making its way into the real world. VoxTec's Phraselator name sounds a bit like something the Three Stooges might have used long ago but no, this PDA-like device was developed through Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for use in Afghanistan and Iraq by American soldiers for communicating with locals who spoke Farsi, Dari, Pashto and other languages. It is now being used as one tool to help keep the peace between English and non-English speakers by police departments in California, Florida, Nevada. In a nutshell the $2,500 ruggedized Phraselator runs an Intel PXA255 400mHz processor that supports a built-In noise canceling microphone, a VOCON 3200 Speech Recognizer, 1GB removable SD card, 256MB of DRAM Memory and 64MB Flash Memory. It can store up to 10,000 phrases."

The Future of Google Search and Natural Language Queries 148

eldavojohn writes "You might know the name Peter Norvig from the classic big green book, 'AI: A Modern Approach.' He's been working for Google since 2001 as Director of Search Quality. An interview with Norvig at MIT's Technology Review has a few interesting insights into the 'search mindset' at the company. It's kind of surprising that he claims they have no intent to allow natural questions. Instead he posits, 'We think what's important about natural language is the mapping of words onto the concepts that users are looking for. But we don't think it's a big advance to be able to type something as a question as opposed to keywords ... understanding how words go together is important ... That's a natural-language aspect that we're focusing on. Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we're not concentrating on the sentence.'"

The Evolution of Language 528

TaeKwonDood writes "We all know language has evolved but mathematicians are trying to take how it has changed in the past to predict what it will be like in the future." From the article: "Mathematical analysis of this linguistic evolution reveals that irregular verb conjugations behave in an extremely regular way -- one that can yield predictions and insights into the future stages of a verb's evolutionary trajectory," says Lieberman, a graduate student in applied mathematics in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and an affiliate of Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. "We measured something no one really thought could be measured, and got a striking and beautiful result.""

The World's Languages Are Fast Becoming Extinct 939

Ant sends news of a report, released a couple of weeks back by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, on the alarming rate of extinction of the world's languages. While half of all languages have gone extinct in the last 500 years, the half-life is dropping: half of the 7,000 languages spoken today won't exist by the year 2100. The NY Times adds this perspective: "83 languages with 'global' influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants."

Bilingualism Delays Onset of Dementia 472

Dee writes with word of a Canadian study indicating that lifelong bilingualism delays the onset of dementia by 4 years. The scientists were reportedly "dazzled" by the results. From the article: "The researchers determined that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the monolingual group was 71.4 years, while the bilingual group was 75.5 years. This difference remained even after considering the possible effect of cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender as influencers in the results. "

The Math Behind PageRank 131

anaesthetica writes "The American Mathematical Society is featuring an article with an in-depth explanation of the type of mathematical operations that power PageRank. Because about 95% of the text on the 25 billion pages indexed by Google consist of the same 10,000 words, determining relevance requires an extremely sophisticated set of methods. And because the links constituting the web are constantly changing and updating, the relevance of pages needs to be recalculated on a continuous basis."

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