Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Getting Your PC from 'Good Morning' to 'Guten Tag'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Getting Your PC from 'Good Morning' to 'Guten Tag'

Article excerpt

Anyone who has ever wanted to speak a foreign language should meet Markus Baur, a research programmer at the Janus Project of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is talking to a computer:

"I'm actually out of town. How about Monday?"

On-screen, the machine types out what it thinks it heard, spits out a paraphrase, then types and says out loud a German translation: Guten Tag, Konnen Sie Montag treffen. That first part isn't right, but the machine gets the second sentence. So Mr. Baur keeps the conversation going: "Monday afternoon sounds great. How about 2 o'clock over at my place?" A few seconds later: "Ja, Montag Nachmittag geht es bei mir ganz gut. Konnen Sie um zwei Uhr treffen?" Baur: "OK, let's meet Monday afternoon." Computer: "OK Montag Nachmittag." Speech-recognition programs are already moving into the consumer market. In the laboratory, scientists are pushing this technology in several powerful directions, including real-time translation. The Janus Project is one of many worldwide efforts to bridge the language chasms that separate the people of the world. It's not an easy assignment for several reasons. First, the computer has to decipher continuous speech (the way people really talk) as opposed to the pauses - that - consumer - oriented - dictation - programs - still - require. Also, it has to understand people immediately no matter what accent they have. The current consumer-grade programs train themselves to recognize a certain speaker. Then there are what the scientists euphemistically call "spontaneous effects in speech." These are the hesitations and false starts, the ungrammatical sentences and colloquial expressions, which people use in everyday speech. Cough, and today's consumer-grade dictation software will try to type out a word. The Janus Project's software instead tries to recognize the "ums" and "ers" of conversation so it can throw them away. …

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