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Why AI careers can start with a degree in linguistics

Sharon Florentine | June 13, 2017
If you are looking to land a career in the artificial intelligence field, studying linguistics is a great place to start.

A linguistics degree traditionally prepares students for careers in academia, professional writing or translation, but as technology continues to advance, these graduates are finding their skills in high demand from an unlikely place-positions in artificial intelligence.

Companies in the AI market are turning to those with linguistic backgrounds to help aid in things like product development and customer service, says Caterina Balcells, chief linguistic officer at conversational search technology company Inbenta.

"Linguistics is important to better understand users and how they're communicating with a company. If we can develop tech that uses natural language processing to help customers find what they're looking for, then that reduces the need to have a person do that, and it improves customer satisfaction at the same time," Balcells says.

There also are applications in voice recognition, search and automatic language translation, she says. And the good news is that, in an emerging field such as this, it's not necessary to have hardcore technical and/or programming chops. Often, these skills are trained or taught on-the-job, Balcells says.

"Most of us here have a linguistics background, but we do have quite a few people on our teams from other, more technical fields. Obviously, if you have linguistics and programming skills, that's a killer combination, and those tech skills are always welcome, but we've all ended up learning a lot of technical and programming skills just by working so closely with our software development and engineering teams," she says.

 

In technical terms …

When Aasish Pappu, now a senior research scientist for Yahoo, was pursuing his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon, he took courses in linguistics and in machine learning. The combination of the two helps him develop ways to represent human language in a way that complex computing systems can understand.

At Yahoo, Pappu works on projects like Yahoo News Annotated Comments Corpus, which aims to foster more respectful online discussions and encourage further linguistic and psychosocial research into online interactions, as well as developing new models for interaction with chatbots.

While there's obviously an incredible amount of technical acumen involved in these projects, there's also a place for linguistics skills and human interaction, Pappu says; some tasks just aren't suited for a machine and need a human's nuanced understanding.

"If we want to have computers achieve the same level of skills to acquire new information, then we start by modeling how humans communicate, person to person, and how they acquire new information and context just by talking. And so, without any technical ability, as long as you can bring that nuanced human insight to a role, you can be successful," Pappu says.

 

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