NET NEWS: Making Sense of a Tower of Babel

Science  06 Aug 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5429, pp. 799
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5429.799c

In a tour de force for translating languages by computer, six people in six countries speaking in six tongues have carried on a spontaneous conversation electronically, without any human interpreters. On 22 July, Carnegie Mellon University scientists and colleagues from five other countries in the Consortium for Speech Translation Advanced Research (C-STAR) held a video conference (via digital phone lines) to demonstrate new computer translation technology. Posing as travel agents and tourists, the scientists chatted about trips they planned to take to each other's countries—from Pittsburgh to Kyoto, for example—while computers instantly translated.

C-STAR's original translation system, developed 8 years ago, only worked if speakers used correct syntax—that is, if they didn't stutter or mumble. But the new system filters out these “ums” and “ers” and has a much bigger vocabulary of over 10,000 words. The system works by picking out keywords and concepts from a sentence—“Can you uhhmmm reserve a double room for two nights?” for example—and gleaning the meaning. It then puts the idea into an intermediate language called an “interlingua”—really a mathematical formula. Finally, a computer paraphrases this version in another language. While they talked, the six scientists also used a Web interface to send things like pictures of hotels.

“We want to make sure that people are communicating correctly to each other and not necessarily word by word,” says Alex Waibel, director of C-STAR ( Currently, the technology is limited to travel, as the world's huge travel industry will probably be the main market for it, Waibel says. The software to use the system, he says, should become available within 5 years.

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