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NLP in the Movies
Natural Language Processing in the Movies
In Volume 13 Issue 390 of the Linguist List (Tuesday 12th February
2002), I posted
a query asking for pointers to portrayals of
natural language processing in movies, to which I received 13 responses.
Posting a summary of those replies to the list provoked yet more
responses. A complete list of people's suggestions and comments
is below, listed alphabetically by movie title. There's also a page
of related links to stuff like information
on AI in the movies.
If you have additional suggestions I'd be very pleased to
receive them: just send an email to Robert.Dale@mq.edu.au, and
I'll incorporate your suggestion into this list. If you'd prefer to
remain anonymous, just let me know. A great big thanks to everyone
who has contributed so far.
- Bladerunner: 'In another
"classic" science fi movie "Bladerunner", I remember a great scene
beginning where the main character is speaking to some video processor
that zooms and pans etc according to his voice commands. I recall
as being very cool, and would likely satisfy your requirements. It's
one-way natural language communication. The computer doesn't talk
it's purely a command-language understanding system serving as a
front-end to this video processor.'
- Clear and Present Danger: '... in which a computer system makes a
voice-match between a recording of a phone call and a recording held
all within about five seconds. The speech analyst then goes on to
that the suspect in question is 'Hmm, Colombian, but educated in the
States. East coast, that is,' before Harrison Ford rushes off to
felon in question and some other baddies while he's about it.'
'Does 'Contact' dabble with NLP at all? It's a while since I've seen
maybe it was all done in binary, I don't know.
- Demolition Man: 'Some guy in a sci-fi police department
is a call center agent. He picks up the phone and says something
like: "Hi, this is XYZ speaking, police department ZYX. If
you want to speek to a computer, please press 1 ..."'
- Earth vs. the Flying Saucers:
'The 50's science fi movie 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' has machine
translation of the alien language -- with a row of pens on a
arm that writes out the translation in script. This is just a piece of
film -- which is not the best of its class, though quite amusing
-- but is
more CL than AI.'
- Face Off:
'Extremes of speech technology-related silliness can be found in 'Face
which a chip is implanted in John Travolta's/Nicholas Cage's neck so
make him sound exactly like his arch-enemy Nicholas Cage/John
this might work is anybody's guess. I was going to say 'but never mind
it's a great movie', but since 'Face Off' is unadulterated tripe from
finish, I won't.'
- Firefly: One of the special features on the DVD release of the TV series
"Firefly" features a handheld encyclopedia device that provides
information in spoken form. The intonation suggests that both that it's
text to speech and that the state of the art hasn't progressed much in
the 500-1000 years that's meant to have passed between now and the time
of "Firefly". In contrast, their search technology is quite good: the
system correctly chooses "The Battle of Serenity Valley" from the input
search term "serenity". [Mary Gardiner]
- Forbidden Planet '... (playfully based
on "The Tempest") in which Robbie the Robot can understand English and
follow commands; at least as interesting as Robbie's magical behavior
(turn garbage into jewels, etc.) is the leftover technology of the
original population of the isolated planet.' [Nancy Frishberg]
- Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
'... has the Babel
fish, but they don't exactly explain how it works, do they? It does
have the wonderful race that was so smart that they were punished by
the "gift" of telepathy. They got so sick of people being able to
read their thoughts that they invented spoken language to mask was
they were really thinking. Still, it's not computational.'
[Doug Whalen, John Dunnion]
- In The Code Conspiracy: '... all hell breaks loose, when a couple of
that own a software development company accidentally stumble upon the
key to breaking the "Torah Codes" in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which
them to know everyone's future as well as scientifically proving the
of God. Now, everyone wants the information, and they'll kill who ever
have to to get it.' [Plot summary from the
Internet Movie Database;
discovered by Peter Turney,
who also suggested this as a good place to search for other possibilities.]
- Mars Attack: '... where a whole bunch of flying saucers from
Mars surround earth and no one knows what their intentions are. So the
U.S. government brings in a professor who's been working on a
translation machine for years. The machine translates voice into
voice, with intonation and emotion. But apparently it is not very
accurate and almost costs the annihilation of earth.'
'... you might want to look at the
translation machine in "Mars attacks!", a really silly but very amusing
spoof on B-grade sci-fi movies. It was made in 1996, directed by Tim Burton
and stars Jack Nicholson as president of the US, Glenn Close as his wife,
Sara Jessica Parker and a number of other unlikely stars. The machine is
trotted out to the desert by a white lab-coat mad scientist, to translate
what the invading Martians will say. It was trained on incoming
transmissions captured before they arrive, and does translate from Martian
to English and English to Martian. The machine itself is a 50's style
square box with dials and knobs and a smallish round green display screen.
But I thought the training part was very much a 90's idea, and they even
talk about much data they need to get good results.'
- Primary Colors:
'There's a preposterous scene in 'Primary Colors', but I
exact details now: something about the John Travolta/Bill Clinton
being smeared by the press for apparently saying something he didn't
tape, it turns out, was spliced together from bits of recordings of
did say). I seem to remember there's some kind of jiggery-pokery
sound spectrograph or waveform analyser just to lend things a bit of
- Red Dwarf [a TV series]: 'The ship on-board
computer, "Holly", is capable of carrying on a large number of
conversations and computations, and obviously also knows many
human (and other) languages.'
- Shooting Fish: '... is a British movie 3 to 5 years old.
It is about two guys who do a lot of funny things in
order to get rich. One of the things is a machine translation computer
called VerbiTec. The computer basically is a laptop with a brick in it
and two persons sitting in the basement doing the translation.'
- Short Circuit: '... has a few robots speaking with commercially
available speech synthesis programs, but, of course, the main robot
is just an actor.'
- Sneakers: '... with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier has a
really horrible use of speaker identification--I don't know if that
is close enough for your purposes or not. But they end up breaking
into a building with a recording that would almost certainly have
- Star Trek:
'What about looking at the Universal Translator in Star Trek and
it to machine translation efforts or problems in speech recognition?
can't think whether there's a particular episode or movie in which
explicitly discussed (there must be, or else I wouldn't know it
Suzette Haden Elgin's
written some critiques of the use of such
in SF literature/film, so there's some material from which to
some 'talking points' ...
apparently they used a hand-held UT in the Area
episode of the original series. Not a movie, but moving pictures, at
There's also a webpage dedicated to
linguistics of Star Trek,
mocking its inadequacies).'
'I'd take any episode of any version of Star Trek (either movies or
tv shows). From what I remember, most interactions with the computer
on these movies (and shows) are in the form of requests or
commands. The main aspect here is not the intelligence of the machine
(like in 2001), but the fact that there is a natural language
interaction between people and machines. The NLP aspect serves as a
communication device in the same way as the keyboard/screen
interaction. Plus, what makes it a little more plausible (as far as
actual knowledge in AI goes) is that the computer usually answers
using a somewhat limited syntax and there are instances of the
computer requesting a re-phrasing of the request because of faulty
syntax. Plus, the interesting point about this choice is that it is
- Star Wars: 'How about Star Wars where the robot C-3P0 is
equiped with a machine
translation system that processes several million languages? The
architecture of this interglactic MT program is never specified. It
would be interesting to know if it relies on pair-wise transfer or
'Probably this won't help you much on your "Fact or Fiction" series,
what immediately came to my mind when reading your message on LINGUIST
was that C3PO (the android - or whatever it is - in George Lucas'
Star Wars) is a specialist in languages. Not only human languages, by
way. There is at least one passage in the third film of the series
his powers are put to a test, and he is regarded as a god of some kind
by the natives ...'
- The Day the Earth Stood Still: '... where the destructive
robot is controlled by "magic" words, and there is wonderful
linguistic/other technology.' [Nancy Frishberg]
- Three Days of the Condor:
'There is always the PDP-11 minicomputer doing optical character
text translation work at the beginning of the Robert Redford thriller
Days of the Condor"--a source of great amusement to those of us
the little system and the field of natural language processing.'
- 2001: '... has lots of speech recognition issues, lip
reading (a special! case of pattern recognition), and so on. Plus
volume celebrating HAL in its/his birth year provides
additional material for you and the rest of the faculty;
see also http://matia.stanford.edu/~stork/HALTalks.html.
Stork also produced
the non-fiction PBS video "Hal's Legacy"'
- UFO: '... text to speech: messages of the satellite SID.'
- Virtuosity: ... with Denzel Washington and Russell
Crowe. There is a passage where the creator of the virtual characters
explains that while the guy was talking to the software it is
acquiring the syntax ... the
software that becomes animated (Russell Crowe) speaks and understands
Please send comments or queries about this web site to Robert.Dale@mq.edu.au
2nd June 2006