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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek technology

MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Conversion Factor
Hong Kong translates research into start-ups
By MARIA CHENG

 
  ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Cover: Stock Options
Still relatively rare in Asia, companies are likely to start giving employees equity as an incentive to work better and stick with the job. Thank the Internet
• Glossary: A quick guide to cashless collars and other terms
• Japanese Dream: It isn't hip to be a salaryman

Asiaweek Salaries Survey 2000
Jobs in the region and how much they pay

Taiwan: The race for president is too close to call. Whoever wins, the island and its relations with Beijing will never be the same
• Interview: Chen Shui-bian does not want war with China
• Black Gold: Of gangsters, vote-buying and political corruption
• Geopolitics: The influence of Taiwan's brand of democracy
Thailand: What the Senate election means for political reform
Malaysia: Behind a debate on special privileges for Malays
East Timor: Why Falantil members are now rebels without a cause
Viewpoint: Vajpayee masks the fundamentalist threat

Technology
The Net: A geek summit in Taiwan
Computing: Hong Kong's hidden software industry
Cutting Edge: Simulating real life

Business
Cash: With $1 billion, San Miguel goes shopping
Marketing: Notebooks as status symbols in Asia
Interview: Krung Thai Bank head says changes are coming
Investing: Mining resource stocks for profit

People: A*Mei drops pop for the classics
Entertainment: The hot spot for survival docu-dramas
Health: Protecting against Alzheimer's disease
Newsmakers: Zhu Rongji lays down the line
Looking Back: Mourning South Korea's President Park

Hong Kong, the copycat capital of the world, is sometimes derided for its dearth of innovative information technology companies. That image has not necessarily been improved by a booming Internet sector which, although attracting lots of publicity and money, is plugged with clone-like start-ups that can all be lumped under the URL me2.com. But Hong Kong is not the intellectual desert it appears. Several small software companies with roots in local university research programs are positioning themselves to become world leaders in a sophisticated and potentially lucrative niche - computerized translation systems aimed at Chinese speakers worldwide.

The World Wide Web today is largely an English-only club, says Dekai Wu, founder of isilk.com, an online service that plans to begin offering real-time English-Chinese (and vice versa) website translation. Despite a recent content buildup on the mainland, only about 2% of websites are available in Chinese. Isilk, used in conjunction with ordinary browsing software, provides instantaneous conversion of English text to simplified or traditional Chinese characters. Once users register at isilk.com, they can choose either the "magic lens" or "subtitles" functions. The former translates any phrase as the cursor passes over it. The latter translates entire Web pages. Set for commercial launch within the next two months, the free service "is designed so that even your Chinese grandmother will be able to surf the net," Wu says.

Sounds simple, but computer-based translation systems present huge technical problems that after decades of experimentation are only now beginning to be overcome. Wu began his research nearly 16 years ago while getting his Ph.D in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied ways to teach computers to "understand" language by applying complex statistical analysis formulas to grammar, syntax and verbiage. Isilk.com was spun off from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Wu, a university faculty member, bought for an undisclosed sum the rights to commercialize translation technology developed at HKUST.

Amid the dotcom din, iSilk can't command much attention from big venture capitalists, but the company does have several angel investors. The mainland translation market is still small at an estimated $120 million per year, but Wu figures he is staking out a sector with abundant potential. The number of Chinese Net users, now at about 10 million, is doubling every six months - the fastest growth rate in Asia.

While isilk.com is geared for ordinary web surfers, Hong Kong's Wisers Information, an online news clipping service, is aiming at Web-based translation for businesses. The brainchild of chief executive Ringo Lam, the Wisers system is based on a bilingual Internet search engine developed with government grants at Chinese University of Hong Kong. The search engine uses special software algorithms to scan the web for target characters or phrases, converting English text into Chinese characters and Chinese into English. Lam believes in the company's commercial future. He also sees a budding computer software sector that will put the SAR on the information technology map. "Hong Kong has some of the most advanced translation technology in the world," says Lam. "The government just needs to put more money into incubation projects."

The challenge lies in converting whizzy technology into viable businesses. Hong Kong's InfoTalk Corp. is looking to do that by adapting computerized, multilingual speech-recognition systems for use over telephones, info-appliances that are far more common in Asia than computers or Internet connections. InfoTalk's VoiceTouch software doesn't do translation, but it does allow computers to recognize phrases spoken in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. According to InfoTalk chief executive Alex Leung, VoiceTouch can serve as a platform for a host of practical applications, such as computerized stock trading by phone.

What the system has going for it is ease of use. Phone banking, for example, requires users to press various keys to access services, a frustrating and tedious operation. With the advent of Internet-enabled phones, services could become easier to deliver, but ordinary speech may prove more people-friendly than point-and-click. "The Internet is great for translation," Leung concedes, "but the problem is that you always need a computer. With our system, you have the mobility of doing things from your phone."

After recently announcing a joint partnership with Intel, InfoTalk is now working on computer software to translate spoken language into text. That market is dominated by companies such as IBM and U.S.-based Dragon Systems, but "one of our advantages is that compared to similar companies in the U.S. or Europe, we're not only working with English" but also with Chinese, Leung says. Indeed, Hong Kong's situation as a bilingual city in close proximity to China may prove to be an invaluable competitive advantage. "The technology we have here for English-Chinese translation is important for the world market, not just for Asia," says Kwok Cheung, who leads Chinese University's Center for Innovation and Technology. Wu of isilk.com believes that the region must believe in its own innovative potential. "Hong Kong needs to change its mentality, and realize that it only has to look within the city to technology resources that already exist," he says. After all, in fast-changing IT markets, following the herd is a great way to fall behind.

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