Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) - May 22, 2006

Business News - Local News

Talking our languages

Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) - May 19, 2006

What if you could use the Internet to communicate with any person in any language?

That's the lofty goal of a group of researchers at the University of Washington's Turing Center.

They're working on the building blocks of a program that might one day allow a person in Seattle to type a question in English, and have it pop up in Cantonese for someone sitting in Hong Kong.

One UW scientist is looking for ways to simplify translation of words that have ambiguous or multiple meanings -- to "disambiguate," in the jargon of linguistics.

Another researcher is building a "grammar matrix," encoding the grammar rules of many languages so they can be more easily translated from one to the other.

It's a dauntingly complex undertaking.

A simple sentence like "Have that report on my desk by Friday" can have 32 different meanings in English alone, depending on the context in which it was spoken, said Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington who's spearheading the grammar matrix.

"We have lots of expectations of what people are talking about which guide us to the right interpretation," Bender said. "Machines are really bad at that."

The linguists are working under the Turing Center, which was established last May with funding from the Utilika Foundation of Seattle, the National Science Foundation, several United States military agencies, and support from Google Inc.

The center, under the directorship of artificial-intelligence pioneer Oren Etzioni, is also devoted to study of data mining and semantic search technology.

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