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Speech Recognition Experts Receive Nearly $700,000 in New Grants

   Portland, Ore.

The OHSU studies will focus on improving human-computer dialogues and making computer-generated speech sound more natural

Three new grants received by researchers in the Center for Spoken Language Understanding ( at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering add up to nearly $700,000.

Jan van Santen, Ph.D., professor and head of the Center for Spoken Language Understanding (CLSU) at the OGI School of Science & Engineering, has received a three-year $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build a model of human hearing within a "talking" computer so computer speech will sound more natural. Van Santen, a mathematical psychologist, was a longtime Bell Labs researcher who joined the Hillsboro, Ore.-based OHSU school to focus on ways to make speech technology useful for education and health.

Computer systems, obviously, do not hear the way humans do, though they can be trained to "talk," albeit without much intonation or expression. By creating a computer system that can better "listen" to what is being said, van Santen hopes the computer's speech ultimately will more closely resemble natural speech.

Van Santen and CSLU senior research associate Lois Black have received a one-year $30,000 grant from the Medical Research Foundation to study how reading styles affect students' story comprehension and test performance. He, along with Audiology Inc., based in Arden Hills, Minn., also received a $12,500 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a computer system that automates hearing tests.

"There is huge potential for speech technology that is useful for education and health," said van Santen. "We are trying to tap into the market and make our work helpful for the average person who has a learning or medical problem." Speech technology could someday be used to help illiterate people learn to read, to help non-native speakers learn English, and to give autistic people more ways to communicate, van Santen said.

Center for Spoken Language Understanding assistant professor Peter Heeman, Ph.D., also has received a three-year $580,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, in conjunction with University of New Hampshire and University of Michigan researchers, to improve human-computer dialogues in situations where people are doing more than one activity at a time, such as driving. The OGI School of Science & Engineering's share of the grant is $350,000.

"It's hard enough for the human brain to tackle more than one task at once," noted Heeman, a computer scientist in the OGI School of Science & Engineering. "If you add a computer into the mix, there are certain interactions between man and machine that need to be more thoroughly developed so the computer does what it is supposed to do and the person running the computer doesn't get frustrated with the machine. Ideally, computers should be trained to work with and for people, not the other way around."

The OGI School of Science & Engineering (formerly the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology) became one of four specialty schools of Oregon Health & Science University in 2001. The OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering has 63 faculty and more than 300 master's and doctoral students in five academic departments.

The Center for Spoken Language Understanding has four full-time faculty, three senior research associates, a dozen graduate students, and additional programming staff. For more information, visit


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