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Say it in Your own Words
Language software is opening new doors

With mobile communications and Internet use booming in Asia, voice recognition and translation software are becoming more important than ever. Today there are programs that can provide crude translations of webpages in various languages or take relatively accurate computer dictation from a designated speaker. There's still a long way to go before the Tower of Babel comes crashing down. But leading software makers like Belgium-based Lernout & Hauspie envision phones that can translate live conversations and systems that can read out e-mail and transcribe your response while you drive. Asiaweek's Yasmin Ghahremani caught up with Louis Woo, president of L&H Asia-Pacific, in Hong Kong recently.

What are the main developments in voice and language technology in Asia?

The two means of communication between humans usually are speech and text. Working from speech to text, we have what we call automatic speech recognition, which could be as sophisticated as maybe 10,000 words for a call center. We have an auto-attendant system that we provide to the largest bank in South Korea, Hanvit Bank. If I call up and say I'm looking for Louis Woo, it would be able to find that person. Or you could say, "I don't know the person's name but he's an account manager and his name could be W-O-O." It should be able to find the person. Speech-to-text is really just recognizing what you say. But more importantly, it will not only recognize what you say but understand what you say. That's what we call natural language understanding.

Another type of technology is dictation. We already cover 16 languages. In Asia we have Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. We want to expand to 36 within the next two or three years.

Text-to-text software includes machine translation and also intelligent content management [e.g., search engines that "understand" context]. Text-to-speech is technology that, for example, can read out text in a nearly natural-sounding synthesized voice.

Unified messaging services are an example [of how these technologies are used today]. There are some portals already in the U.S. today that, if I'm expecting a very important message from you and I don't have a PC with me, I can just call the portal service and say I'm looking for this e-mail. Get it and read it to me. They won't have a live person there. I don't want a live person reading my e-mail, which could be confidential. Even in Singapore we have three companies that are already incorporating our technology into unified messaging.

After 50 years of research, machine translations are only 80% accurate. Translations like, "I am like to meet you" are still common. What's the hold-up?
That 80% accuracy is for general topics - topics that the machine doesn't know exactly so it doesn't really have the context to start with. Machine translation today is more useful to domain-specific areas. For example if it knows the following [text] will focus on finance, or medicine, then the accuracy tends to increase tremendously. We are building special machine translation engines for particular corporations. We build special dictionaries because each company might have different definitions and names of their products and things like that.

Even humans don't have perfect understanding. If you talk about Shakespeare's works I would not be able to appreciate the breadth and depth of discussion of Shakespeare as literature. Similarly, it is very difficult to build all of this intelligence into just one machine translation engine.

We are also creating more domain-specific styles. Machine translations are enhanced by knowing what the style of writing is. It's easier to translate technical writings than poems, because poems are more unstructured, Structured is easier, more accurate to translate.

How are firms using your technology to help, say, a U.S. manager communicate with a supplier in China?
I think today most multinational corporations are building intelligent systems, at least for internal usage. Using machine translation to roughly translate the messages back and forth. So people in various countries could understand the gist of it.

Where will this technology be five years down the road?

My father lives in Hong Kong. I live in Singapore. The only language he speaks is Cantonese. And my oldest son is seven years old. My father always asks me how my son's doing in school and I sometimes say, "Why don't you talk to the teacher?" But then I think about it and he can't. The teacher is Malay. She doesn't speak Cantonese. Five years down the road I want my father to be able to pick up the phone, talk in Cantonese, and my son's teacher will pick up the phone and listen in whatever language she chooses, and answer too. And better yet, the voice my son's teacher hears would be my father's voice speaking in English. That could be far out. That's the kind of vision we have.

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