A way to talk a computer into running a program

From his carpeted office overlooking a valley packed with computer companies, Larry Harris plans the assault on high-tech's Tower of Babel - the myriad codes and special commands required to operate computers.

You used to have to know a bookful of specialized commands to get a computer to yield information from its data banks. But not any more. About a half-dozen companies now sell computer programs that let users ask for information in plain English - hence the name, natural language systems.

''This takes the burden off the user and shifts it onto the computer,'' says Dr. Harris, president of Artificial Intelligence Corporation (AIC), which sells the most commercially successful of these systems - called Intellect.

Intellect takes a question and translates it into the precise language and commands needed to get at the information. It flashes the formal sentence back on the screen, to make sure the question was properly understood. It can also ask for clarifications.

While this may sound simple, it actually requires the computer to have a good deal of knowledge about what the user wants and the sort of information available.

But giving the office computer the gift of gab isn't cheap. The base price for Intellect is more than $69,000. One company client is Southern California Edison, which uses the system to ask questions about employee, purchasing, and maintenance records.

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