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February 19, 2007

Humanities faculty benefit from UCSC contract with NASA

By Scott Rappaport

Last summer, two graduate students in linguistics had the opportunity to work on a NASA project to develop spoken dialogue technology that talks astronauts through complicated procedures in space.

Photo of Geoffrey Pullum

Linguistics professor Geoffrey Pulllum, above, obtained funding from the Aligned Research Program that enabled linguistics grad students to work on a spoken dialogue system used on the International Space Station, below.

Pullum photo: Scott Rappaport
Photo of space station

Photo courtesy of NASA

Called Clarissa, the technology allows astronauts to have their hands and eyes free to concentrate on the task at hand, without taking time to flip through pages or scroll through instructions on a laptop screen--which is a bit more complicated in zero gravity.

When the system was tested on the International Space Station in 2005, it became the first dialogue system ever used in space.

The spoken dialogue system is just one of many NASA projects implemented through a unique partnership between UCSC and the NASA Ames Research Center. In 2003, they established the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), where UCSC now manages a number of mission-oriented research tasks. A portion of UARC’s funds support a campus research opportunity called the Aligned Research Program (ARP), to which UCSC faculty can submit proposals.

Linguistics grad students Ascander Dost and Justin Nuger became involved in the project through one such proposal submitted by linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum. The idea was for the students to gain experience in computational linguistics, and for the project to have the benefit of their talents in extending the functionality of the spoken dialogue system.

The success of Pullum’s ARP grant eventually led to a separate three-month pilot project with the Ford Motors Research Division. The new research grant came about because UCSC already had graduate students working on the system who had exactly the right skills for the Ford project. UARC Project Scientist Beth Ann Hockey--leader of the Clarissa project at NASA Ames--said that Ford has indicated that the company is now interested in funding additional research on the UCSC campus.

“The Aligned Research Program funding that Professor Pullum obtained was crucial for building the base for the Ford project,” Hockey noted. “It has opened up new internship possibilities for students and promoted collaboration between the Linguistics Department and NASA through the UARC. It has also put the department in a good position to pursue other similar opportunities.”

“This is a classic example of a faculty success story stimulated by UARC,” added Bruce Margon, vice chancellor of research and professor of astronomy. “This is precisely how these seed funds are supposed to stimulate opportunities for faculty.”

 
                                            

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