Europe’s Multilingual Companion

Most people these days know how to smile at the ‘five year’s away’ promises from the IT sector, especially in the language technology industry. In Europe (and no doubt elsewhere), the language and speech technology community has started building various roadmaps to add a bit more rigor to specifying developmental milestones in such areas as speech recognition and MT. It will be interesting to see whether, like certain other roadmaps, progress follows the vision. Recently, one of the bodies that advises the EU on future R&D programs (the European Information Society Technologies Advisory Group (ISTAG)) published a draft report on the Grand Challenges in the Evolution of the Information Society which tries to crystallize possible futures (circa 2010) into a number of easy-to-picture challenges and solutions.

One of them is devoted to the “serious linguistic challenges” of a very large Union, and proposes “The Multilingual Companion” – “a small portable device making it easy for each person (i.e. in an encounter) to understand the others.” Here’s the vision:

A device of this sort…would rapidly and accurately render translations in text and speech in any other European language desired. Hence, it could be used to take voice dictation, immediately generating the text in any number of languages, thereby streaming the connection between humans and computers. The companion would be extremely useful for disseminating the minutes of meetings to many countries simultaneously, to each in its own language.

The idea behind this challenge is, of course, to focus research in all areas of language technology (speech, learning, cognitive clues for meanings, summarizing, translation, cross-lingual search, etc) towards a concrete practical goal rather than towards a scatter of purely short-term R&D targets, as has often been the case in the past. The model here is clearly the successful VERBMOBIL project run by the German government to produce a mobile real-time translation device for a limited language set.

As the report points out, European IT giants like Philips and France Telecom have been reducing their R&D effort in these areas in recent years, while IBM and Microsoft have boosted research in ‘natural language’ technology. ISTAG’s hope is that the new generation of language technology companies, that in several cases have been spun off from larger organizations, or which emerged from earlier EU language tech projects, will now carry the work forward in Europe to produce the sort of a polyglot wristwatch that will solve our face to face communication problems.

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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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