In just two or three years, computers and robots could be having meaningful conversations with human beings, say University of Aberdeen scientists.
They're developing software based on Natural Language Processing that, they say, could be used in the aerospace, aviation, defence and energy sectors.
Applications include unmanned exploratory missions in hostile environments such as other planets or the deep oceans, decommissioning nuclear power plants or just maintaining and repairing railway lines.
"Evidence shows there may be mistrust when there are no provisions to help a human to understand why an autonomous system has decided to perform a specific task, at a particular time, and in a certain way," says Dr Wamberto Vasconcelos from the university's School of Natural and Computing Sciences.
"What we are creating is a new generation of autonomous systems, which are able to carry out a two-way communication with humans. The ability to converse with such systems will provide us with a novel tool to quickly understand, and if necessary correct, the actions of an automated system, increasing our confidence in, and the usefulness of, such systems."
Using their software, information and data created by the system, originally represented as symbols of mathematical logic, is automatically transformed into simple text. This means the system a can discuss a plan with a human being before getting started.
Via a keyboard, the human can then ask more questions, asking it to provide further justifications for its decisions, or can give the computer more information.
"We hope the systems we are developing will enable a new generation of computer systems - including robots and also potentially mobile phones - which can interact with a human in useful ways, which up until now haven’t been explored," says Dr Vasconcelos.
"The resulting systems would potentially enhance efficiency - both in terms of cost and operation - in the sectors in which they could be employed."