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Will computers ever truly understand what we're saying?

Date: January 11, 2016

Source University of California - Berkeley


If you think computers are quickly approaching true human

communication, think again. Computers like Siri often get

confused because they judge meaning by looking at a word's

statistical regularity. This is unlike humans, for whom context is

more important than the word or signal, according to a

researcher who invented a communication game allowing only

nonverbal cues, and used it to pinpoint regions of the brain where

mutual understanding takes place.

From Apple's Siri to Honda's robot Asimo, machines seem to be

getting better and better at communicating with humans. But

some neuroscientists caution that today's computers will never

truly understand what we're saying because they do not take into

account the context of a conversation the way people do.

Specifically, say University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral

fellow Arjen Stolk and his Dutch colleagues, machines don't

develop a shared understanding of the people, place and

situation - often including a long social history - that is key to

human communication. Without such common ground, a

computer cannot help but be confused.

“People tend to think of communication as an exchange of

linguistic signs or gestures, forgetting that much of

communication is about the social context, about who you are

communicating with," Stolk said.

The word “bank," for example, would be interpreted one way if

you're holding a credit card but a different way if you're holding a

fishing pole. Without context, making a “V" with two fingers

could mean victory, the number two, or “these are the two

fingers I broke."

“All these subtleties are quite crucial to understanding one

another," Stolk said, perhaps more so than the words and signals

that computers and many neuroscientists focus on as the key to

communication. “In fact, we can understand one another without

language, without words and signs that already have a shared


(Adapted from


If you are holding a fishing pole, the word “bank” means a:

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