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Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009

Computational linguistics expert to speak on the "language of computers" at IU

April 20, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Finland native Lauri Karttunen, who earned his doctorate in linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington in 1969, will visit campus this week to accept a Distinguished Alumni Award from the IU Department of Linguistics.

While he's in Bloomington (from April 22-24), Karttunen will present lectures to IU students and faculty members and will give a public talk titled "Computing Textual Inferences" on Friday, April 24, at 4 p.m. in Ballantine Hall, Room 228.

"Lauri Karttunen is an outstanding alumnus of the department and an inspiration to students and scholars in a relatively broad range of related fields centering around the computational analysis of language," said Stuart Davis, chair of the IU Department of Linguistics.

"He is a particularly appropriate person to receive our department's distinguished alumni award, given our recently established M.A. and Ph.D. concentrations in computational linguistics and the presence of faculty members in a variety of different departments on campus who have strong research interests in computational linguistics."

Lauri Karttunen

Lauri Karttunen

Print-Quality Photo

A research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Karttunen received a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics in June 2007 at its 45th Annual Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic.

Karttunen said he has spent his entire career trying to build systems that understand natural spoken language, the ultimate goal of computational linguistics.

"One indication that a human has understood a piece of text is that she can answer questions about it," Karttunen said. "A computer should be able to do the same. It is unlikely that we will get there in my lifetime, but progress is being made."

Karttunen is currently working with Powerset, a startup company that has adapted technology to improve the quality of search on the internet. Powerset was recently acquired by Microsoft's Live Search business unit.

After graduating from IU, Karttunen entered the field of computation linguistics when it was in its infancy. "In the happy childhood of computational linguistics, even the most junior person in the field, like myself, was allowed -- even invited -- to give a talk at professional association meetings about uncharted linguistic phenomena," he said. "It was a small field then."

During his first two years in Bloomington, Karttunen taught Finnish for nine hours each week. He signed up for a single course on computational linguistics taught by Robert E. Wall, who became a mentor to him. For that course, Karttunen wrote a program on punch cards to randomly generate sentences from a small grammar of Finnish. In his third and last year in Bloomington, he worked as a research assistant in the Computer Center as a liaison to the Department of Linguistics.

"My one accomplishment was to save piles of anthropological data from obsolescence by writing a program to transform rolls of 5-channel paper tape to 6-channel magnetic tapes," he said. "By doing that, I became one of the few linguists who could explain the joke 'There are 10 kinds of linguists: those who know binary and those who don't.'"

He was also taking his first steps into a field that would prove to have enormous importance for anyone who sits down in front of a computer to do a Google search or look up information.

"We're delighted to welcome him back to Bloomington and to recognize his accomplishments by naming him as our Distinguished Alumni Award winner," said Davis.