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Computer Cross Talk: This is not Sci-Fi


A friend of mine found himself in French speaking Ivory Coast late last year but why he was there is no business of this column. The man’s French is as blunt as mine.

Once you find yourself in such a scenario, you soon realise that lack of knowledge of a people’s language is a huge ‘disability’.

One fails to accomplish even the most silly things.


Having displayed his idiocy for an entire day, his techie instincts engaged. He fired up Google Translate from his smartphone and soon the man’s French was as good as Drogba’s. Every time he wanted to negotiate price of anything, he would type the same in English and Google Translate would faithfully give out the French equivalence.

An iPhone is not just a phone; it can be a tourist guide. In the thick of things, along a maze of elevated heaven-like highways of San Francisco, it may not be that easy to locate Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.

All you need at that point is to ask Siri in plain English for directions to U.S 101 South. The App will display a map that will show you where you are and how to maneuver from there to get to your destination.


In the world of Sci-Fi, my friend who sojourned in West Africa would have required conferring with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Babel Fish which talks about a strange creature that once inserted in the ear, allows a person to understand speech in any language.

Technology is fast unwinding the mysteries science fiction only dreams of finding solutions to. IBM has taken it further than Google Translate. In partnership with the translation company, Lionbridge, IBM offers GeoFluent, an online application that instantly translates chats between customers and troubleshooters who do not share language.

GeoFluent would be ideal for foreign affairs. There are times that I have had my doubts about the translation correctness of Chinese experts whenever Chinese heavyweight politicians visit. I do not distrust their fluency in English; it is just that they sound like spin doctors who seem to tell their masters what they what to hear.

Traditionally, computers have done badly at writing prose. This is changing.

Computers star ted by generating grammatically correct but meaningless sentences. In 2008, the Inter national Conference on Computer Science and software Engineering accepted the paper “Towards the Simulation of E-commerce” and invited its author to chair a session. And who was the author? SCIgen, a computer application from MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

SCIgen generates random Computer Science research papers in a way that maximizes amusement and cares less about harmony in the prose.

However, things are improving; recently, a company Narrative Science used an algorithm app that authored comprehensive corporate earnings for Forbes.

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