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Will computers demolish the Tower of Babel?

[ SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2002 12:14:45 AM ]
MUMBAI: Is there more to ghar than four walls and a roof ? Does the word pyaar have a life outside mushy movie posters? Does khoon mean different things to different people? These questions may sound like the patter of vacuous veejays rather than the grist of bespectacled academia.

But they are being posed by a group of computer scientists and linguists seeking serious answers—not just from dictionaryspouting scholars but from all Mumbaikars who speak Hindi.

As part of the Universal Networking Language Project—an ambitious attempt by 18 countries to make computers multilingual —a team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Powai) are busy teaching computers Hindi and Marathi. Before these tutorials can be delivered, however, they have to strip the language down to its nuts, bolts and basic concepts.

And it is here that help is needed. “We will soon be putting up a list of Hindi words and usages on the Net. As the language belongs to the community at large, we hope people will vet them and make suggestions,’’ says Pushpak Bhattacharyya, a computer science professor who heads the Centre for Indian Language Technology Solutions at IIT (Powai).

Adds Debasri Chakrabarti, a doctoral student in linguistics, “Language undergoes daily change. New words and usages are not found in dictionaries,which is why we want native speakers to contribute.’’

Those who make their way to the centre’s webpage to discuss the current meaning of mrig may not realise it, but they are part of a worldwide movement to democratise technologies.

“We have to make computers speak our language,’’ says Jitendra Shah, a professor at VJTI. Mr Bhattacharyya, who points to more than 80 per cent of Internet content being in English, adds, “People who don’t know English are at a tremendous disadvantage. In 1996, the United Nations initiated a project to overcome the language barrier through machine translation. If it succeeds, it will be possible for a Marathi-speaker to access English websites in his mother-tongue. Or for me to send an e-mail in Bengali, which my friend in Tokyo will read in Japanese.’’

This doesn’t sound too arduous a task for a machine that is able to run a nuclear power plant and beat Kasparov in chess, except that natural languages have always eluded the straitjacket of mathematical formulae.

“When the idea of machine translation emerged in the ‘50s, it was seen as a trivial problem which involved little more than programming a bilingual dictionary,’’ says Mr Bhattacharyya. But this simplistic notion was soon dispelled. According to a famous story, the English sentence ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ was fed into the computer, translated into Russian, and then back into English.

What emerged was ‘The alcohol is strong but the meat is rotten’, he says. Half a century later, computers are still unable to grasp the subtle difference between ‘I saw the boy with the telescope’ and ‘I saw the boy with the bat’. Indeed, to explain ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’ to this most literal of machines is a bit like describing crimson and scarlet to a colourblind cow. “Translation is an unbelievably complex process, and how the human mind functions during translation is still unknown,’’ says Milind Malshe, an IIT professor and well-known translator.

Adds Mr Bhattacharyya, “Natural languages are rich in ambiguities and implications —which computers are unable to handle. So, for example, our system finds technical documents simple to translate, but not childrens’ stories.’’

At the heart of this evolving system is Universal Networking Language—a techno-Esperanto which serves as a steppingstone in the translation process. Take, for example, a document that needs to be translated from English to Hindi. “The computer converts English into UNL, and then UNL into Hindi,’’ explains Mr Bhattacharyya, adding that Japanese, Indonesian, Hindi, Arabic, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese have all been successfully mated with UNL.

“At IIT, we are focusing on Hindi, Marathi and English. Incidentally, we are the only research group in the world converting English into UNL. This is because countries like the US and England don’t see machine translation as a priority. As far as they are concerned, the rest of the world should learn English.’’

In an attempt to chop languages into bytesized pieces, the IIT team has distilled 4,500 rules from Hindi. It is also erecting a Hindi Wordnet—a complex scaffolding of words and related concepts. “By pairing words with their synonyms, we avoid ambiguities arising out of multiple meanings,’’ explains Mr Bhattacharyya, pointing out that a computer confronted with ghar, for example, has no idea which of the nine meanings to adopt. “However if ghar is paired with gruh, it is clear that the word is being used in the astrological sense. If it is paired with parivar, it refers to household.’’

These maps of words might well help to navigate the unspoken, metaphoric depths of language. “Few countries will benefit as much as India if this dream comes true,’’ points out Mr Bhattacharyya. “After all, few countries have the number of languages and barriers that we do.’’

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