Machine translation for peacebuilding and conflict transformation?

Just a few days ago I noted in Real time machine translation: The present and future that,

25 years hence, will it really matter if we are really monolingual? By then, would multilingual social and political interactions, and even person to person conversations, be mediated by some form of mobile, real time, contextual translation?

In a New York Times article published today, Google concurs,

“This technology can make the language barrier go away,” said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google who leads the company’s machine translation team. “It would allow anyone to communicate with anyone else.”

Google’s Computing Power Betters Translation Tool is a fascinating look into Google’s machine translation, which is now the world’s best in, as the article notes, computer translations that are not limited to a particular subject area.

Google’s innovations in this area are fascinating, from OCR and translation running on mobiles, to this comparative graphic which shows just how far ahead Google is to other translation services on the web, including from Microsoft.

Click above image for larger version, or click here to access the full table on NYT.

On a tangential note, there is an interesting discrepancy between the quality of translations on Microsoft Bing, and on the real time translation showcased by Microsoft here.

Peacebuilding and reconciliation
What are the implications for peacebuilding as a result of these significant and rapid developments in machine translation?

There are of course several exciting possibilities for the application of this technology in the domains of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding. If the inaccuracy of the translations are accepted by all parties, these platforms even without 100% accuracy become valuable tools in cross-cultural conflict resolution, conflict transformation and post-disaster, to strengthen interactions between foreign and local aid workers as well as victims on the ground.

  • Nearly six years ago, I helped develop what at the time was a state of the art peace negotiations platform based on Groove Virtual Office, a video of which can be seen here. Plugging in machine translation powered by Groove, for example, can be a powerful way to communicate even complex ethno-political conflicts where language divides.
  • One can even think of simple platforms developed for reconciliation, where users no longer have to resort to a common or link language they may not know enough of to express emotions and ideas. Again, if machine translation’s caveats are acknowledged from the get-go, and the users themselves contribute to better translations, such platforms can soon become expert systems in their respective domains of application and use.
  • The New York Times article does not record that Google Talk already offers translation bots. Groove Virtual Office also had a real time chat service that the One Text system leveraged. Likewise, can future peace negotiations platforms use almost real time translation to aid critical discussions?
  • Can Google tap into the UN’s vast and public database of documents since its inception to extrapolate a more detailed, nuanced vocabulary and precise cross-translation patterns for Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish?
  • Will next generation online dispute resolution systems avail themselves of machine translation backends to augment cross cultural dispute resolution? Can for example such translation engines help in cutting edge ODR ideas such as the m-jirga in Afghanistan?

3 comments on “Machine translation for peacebuilding and conflict transformation?

  1. Kirti
    March 11, 2010 at 5:48 am #

    You should take a look at Meedan – which is a peace focused project that also relies on MT. This and some other crowd based initiatives are described in here:

    http://kv-emptypages.blogspot.com/2010/02/translation-as-force-of-change.html

  2. Jeff
    March 17, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    12 years ago we developed a fully functional prototype of a bidirectional speech-to-speech machine translation system, designed for a wearable platform, and for peace-keeping operations.
    http://www.lti.cs.cmu.edu/Research/Diplomat/Index.html

    The Haitian Creole language data from that project was recently released:
    http://www.speech.cs.cmu.edu/haitian

    and then within days many other applications resulted from that effort (Google Translate, MSN Bing Translator, MSN Translation bot, Interlect Translator Blackberry app, other mobile phones, etc)

  3. Jeff
    March 17, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    The whole story told in:

    Haiti relief in the language industry
    http://multilingual.texterity.com/multilingual/201003?folio=50 (all 3 pages, pp 50-52)

    Shelved Machine Translator Gets New Life in Haiti Relief Effort
    http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/american-life/usnews/-Shelved-Machine-Translator-Gets-New-Life-in-Haiti-Relief-Effort-83816002.html

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