CHAPEL HILL — Ever give a command to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant, and find that some things get lost in communication?

It’s safe to say that you’re not alone.

To perform such functions, voice-activated virtual assistants rely on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning to understand what the user is saying. However, as with any emerging technology, there’s always room for improvement.

Mohit Bansal, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and director of the UNC-NLP Lab. Source: UNC

Enter Mohit Bansal, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and director of the UNC-NLP Lab. He recently received a Google Focused Research Award in natural language processing, a subfield of computer science concerned with the interactions between computers and human languages.

Thanks to this $1.5 million injection — which he will split equally with fellow principal investigator Yoav Artzi, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Cornell Tech at Cornell University — the award will fund his research into spatial language understanding, analyzing how to program computers to process large amounts of natural language data. In particular,  it will be done “in interactive settings using resources that provide real-life visual input and environment configurations.”

Most research in spatial language takes place in environments with constrained mobility or visibility or limited interactivity, which limits the utility of the results. Bansal and Artzi hope that the use of real-life visual input and environment configurations will enable better study and model development of the language in real-life environments, the university announced in its release.

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The Focused Research Awards program is one way Google supports a small number of multi-year research projects in areas of study that are of key interest to Google, as well as the research community. The awards are invitation-only and typically last for two to three years, and the recipients gain access to Google tools, technologies and expertise.

“These unrestricted gift awards are highly prestigious, and usually considered as a significantly larger and more selective version of the Google Faculty Award program — only a handful of professors have received these awards since its establishment nearly a decade ago in 2010,” the university said.

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