1993 Discover Awards: Computer Software: Byte Your Toungues

Friday, October 01, 1993
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
Winner

Globalink Translation Software

Bedrich ChaIoupka, GIobaIink

No science fiction device requires the suspension of disbelief quite like the universal translator, which would dispel the improbability of conversing with newly encountered aliens. But it’s long been a dream of real-world spies and educators alike, and software engineers have struggled for decades to write programs that can pick apart the nuances of one earthly tongue and convert it into another. Now programmers are well on their way to creating programs for the instantaneous computer translation of foreign languages.

One veteran of the machine-translation effort has been at it since the 1950s. Back then, at Georgetown University, Czech-born Bedrich Chaloupka helped develop CIA-funded computer programs designed to translate Russian texts into English. But in 1966 the project ended when the lengthy programs were declared unworkable.

But the brute-force approach of those programs has gone the way of the ballroom-size computers that ran them. Today Chaloupka is chief scientist at Globalink, in Fairfax, Virginia, and the brains behind the company’s GTS line of software for the personal computer. These programs, which translate English into French, German, Russian, or Spanish, and vice versa, have won acclaim for both quality of translation and speed of operation.

The elegance of the GTS software begins with the dictionary, the backbone of any machine-translation program. As the program reads each word of the source text (in the language to be translated), it first verifies the word in a computerized dictionary. Once it finds the word, the program encounters a numerical value, known as a pointer, that’s stored with the word. The pointer identifies the memory location of the equivalent word in a second dictionary, and then stores words in the second, or target, language.

What distinguishes GTS from other translation software is that the pointers associated with words in foreign-language dictionaries all lead the program to their English-language equivalents. The pointers for the German word Tisch and the Spanish word mesa have the same numerical value, the memory address of the English word table.

Keying each translation into English, says Chaloupka, provides several advantages. For one thing, a translator working with a computer operating system that can harness several programs at once could translate Spanish directly into German by running the Spanish-English and German- English software simultaneously. The consistency of the pointers also allows for easy manipulation and upgrading of the various dictionaries. Just as language always undergoes evolution, says Chaloupka, so do these programs. They were built to be modified.

In addition, Chaloupka has set up the GTS dictionaries so that each word, regardless of its length, occupies the same number of bits of memory. This uniformity allows the program to whiz through the dictionary during searches.

But GTS software doesn’t stop at word-for-word translation. It goes on to analyze the semantic nuances of ambiguous words. The word left, for example, plays different roles in They left the stadium and There’s nothing left, but GTS software clarifies these roles by checking the word’s immediate neighbors.

The resulting translation may lack a human translator’s smoothness--the programs work best with unpoetic technical documents--but it’s usually good enough to massage into acceptability. Even with all these subroutines, Chaloupka has managed to whittle down the computer instructions in GTS software to a mere 10,000--fewer than a tenth the number in the original, government-sponsored efforts. And this brevity represents nearly 30 years of progress in combining computerization with linguistic techniques. The programs are now compact enough to be stored on just about any standard desktop computer. Says Chaloupka: Machine translation is like a chess game--in how many moves can you finish off your opponent? We wanted to figure out the shortest possible way.

FinaIists

Brad Stewart, director of research and development at Covox in Eugene, Oregon, for the Voice Blaster software package, which provides voice recognition capability for PC audio cards. With a suggested retail price of $119.95, Voice Blaster is one of the first affordable systems of this kind. It could be taught, for example, to recognize the word save; then whenever it heard the word, it would save the current document.

Reese Jones, chairman and CEO of FaraIIon Computing in Alameda, California, for Timbuktu, the first software package that allows networked Macintosh and Windows PC users to communicate, exchange information, and share resources easily. Previously, most cross-platform solutions were expensive and difficult to install and maintain. Using Timbuktu software, Macintosh and PC users can exchange electronic files, share printers, remotely access and control desktop computers across the network, and work collaboratively. Timbuktu gives all network users the freedom to choose their favorite brand of desktop computer, without sacrificing communications capability, access to information, or productivity.

Duane Maxwell, chief technology officer at Gryphon Software in San Diego, California, for the Morph computer software program. Gryphon is the first to make morphing technology (which smoothly transforms two images into each other) easy to use and affordable: high-end special- effects creation is now available for less than $100. Apart from obvious uses by video and graphics professionals, Morph can help architects document stages of renovation and allow plastic surgeons to provide patients with before-and-after images.

Daryl Scott, vice president of Strategic Mapping in Santa Clara, California, for Local Expert, a less-than-$100 software package that offers travelers computerized maps and current information about hotels, shopping areas, events, and services in cities around the world. Local Expert can find places within a specified radius; for example, it can provide the names of all the Chinese restaurants within ten blocks of the user’s hotel. Software with updated information is released every three months for $15.
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