Speech-translation computer nominated for prize

A simultaneous-translation computer that can be accessed via mobile phone to interpret business conversations between different languages has been nominated for a prestigious German technology prize.

The system, called Verbmobil, was developed by a team of scientists led by Wolfgang Wahlster at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH, or DFKI). Wahlster is the first computer scientist ever to be nominated for the annual German Future Prize.

Verbmobil uses an innovative speech-analysis process that can interpret spontaneous, everyday human speech, continually updating its knowledge database to reduce misunderstandings. A prototype version, unveiled in late 2000, can translate Chinese, English, German, and Japanese.

The prototype is still a long way from becoming a commercially available product, Reinhard Karger, project manager for Verbmobil said. "We're talking about an extraordinarily complicated matter," he said.

Among the advances made by the scientists is the ability to recognize intonation, or the melody of speech, which can change the meaning of a sentence, Karger said.

Verbmobil can also recognize acoustic hesitation signals -- such as "um" or "er" -- and knows how to interpret them, he said.

For example, in the sentence, "I'll take the train at, er, three," the signal "er" simply signals hesitation, whereas in, "I'll take the train at three, er, four," the signal implies a self-correction, he said.

Verbmobil, he said, "hasn't solved all these problems yet, but it's the first to take them seriously."

The result of some 20 years of basic research, the Verbmobil project has already resulted in such spin-off products as a speech-directed Internet product search and an automated telephone cinema program listing.

The multidisciplinary project, involving computer scientists, linguists, artificial intelligence experts, and others, is a key to the future of the information society, DFKI said in a statement.

Computers will not become a universal technology until anyone can make an inquiry or command in his or her own language, and be answered in that same language, the institute said.

The German Future Prize, which carries a cash award of 500,000 marks (US$225,000), will be awarded Tuesday in Berlin by German President Johannes Rau.

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