AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maine visitors often don't understand the Maine accent, and now researchers at Bell Labs in New Jersey are finding computers can't quite figure out that distinctive Maine twang, either.
'When Mainers speak, four is often split into two syllables and the 'o' stressed,' said John McCatherin, a spokesman for New England Telephone.
It comes out sounding someting like 'fo-wah.'
Bell Lab researchers are trying to design a computer program capable of understanding human language. But when they tested a prototype in Portland recently, they found the computer heard 'four' and interpreted it as 'zero.'
'The computer kept confusing that hard 'o' with the 'o' in 'zero,'' he said.
The computer program is still in the early stages of development, but the Maine experiment conducted in April was the first attempt to test the system 'with voices off the street,' McCatherin said.
The New Jersey researchers selected Maine as the first test of its system because of the unique downeast twang. After the data was analyzed and fed into the machine's memory banks, the researchers found that when they went back a second time the computer understood the twang.
The researchers hope to eventually teach the computer to understand a universal accent. Otherwise they will need different programs for different systems throughout the country, including the Deep South and the New York metropolitan area.
'Such a program has vast possibilities for use,' McCatherin said. 'But the first use will probably be to replace operators who ask 'what number are you calling.'
'It's conceivable that in five years or less we could be field testing such a system,' he said.