Second of three Baggett Lectures
Three developments are creating an extraordinary range of near-term opportunities. First, algorithms for many kinds of automatic speech and language analysis have passed the threshold of usability; second, more and more of our personal, social, and economic life flows through digital networks that are subject to computational analysis; and third, more and more of our history is becoming accessible in digital archives. These vast pools and flows of digital text and speech, along with new analysis techniques and inexpensive computation, constitute an extraordinary new scientific instrument, a modern equivalent of the 17th-century invention of the telescope and microscope. We can now observe linguistic patterns in space, time, and cultural context, on a scale six orders of magnitude greater than in the recent past, at a speed six orders of magnitude faster, and simultaneously in much greater detail than ever before. These trends promise breakthroughs in many areas, from legal e-discovery and social science survey methods to diagnosis of communications disorders and data-mining of patient records. There are applications in fields of scholarship from history to hermeneutics. And perhaps most important, the basic sciences of speech, language, and communication are being reborn.