By the close of 2002, Bill Dolan, manager of Natural
Language Processing (NLP) Group at Microsoft Research (MSR), expects
the software titan to deploy a Web-based system capable of accurately
and automatically translating the entire Microsoft Product Support
Services (PSS) Knowledge Base from English into Spanish, providing
real-time responses to Spanish queries. The PSS Knowledge Base is
an enormous collection of information used to identify and solve problems
with Microsoft software.
Accurately and automatically converting this sizable
knowledge base from English to Spanish, without human editing, represents
an incredible leap forward in the world of computational linguistics.
This breakthrough, made possible by the fruition of a two-decade plus
research effort, produced an NLP system known internally at Microsoft
The system has already been successfully beta tested.
The NLP Group is now working on English to Japanese, German, French,
and Chinese versions of the NLPWin executable (program). These systems
will likely save the company millions of dollars and that is just
The NLP Group is exploring how its Machine
Translation (MT) technology can help product divisions within Microsoft.
"Demand for the technology is far outpacing the capacity of our
30 member research group to satisfy requests," says Dolan. One
Microsoft product team especially interested in the technology is
the Productivity Tools Group, which has the daunting task of product
Localization, that lengthy process of preparing software
for a foreign market, typically involves translating the text embedded
in the software itself (e.g. menus, message dialog boxes) as well
as the associated user manuals and other help text into the native
language. As you can imagine, this is a considerable undertaking for
a product like Office XP.
The NLP Group's MT technology has the potential for
making this time-consuming, complex, and expensive procedure fast,
simple, and inexpensive.
They also see their innovation eventually being
for use by other large corporations in need of translating
sizable bodies of documents quickly and cheaply. Some in the NLP Group
envision a time when a "mega-translator," based on their
technology, will allow Internet users to converse in unrestricted
domains instantaneously. Unleashing this type of communication power
for public use could open a entirely new world of global interactions.
A Little History
To better appreciate and understand the implications
of Microsoft's Machine Translation breakthrough, it is helpful to
briefly examine the evolution of the field. The quest for accurate,
automatic, on the fly MT has been the Holy Grail of leading computational
linguistics and AI researchers for over fifty years. The effort began
when Warren Weaver, then director of the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote
a 1949 memorandum to 200 top scientists, suggesting that computers
could be programmed to translate language mathematically, without
actually "understanding" the meaning of words. This seminal
12-page memo literally launched the field of MT.
Within in a couple of years, MT efforts were underway
at UCLA, the National Bureau of Standards, the University of Washington,
the Rand Corporation, and MIT. In 1953, a Georgetown University team
worked with IBM to actually create the first working MT program, which
translated Russian into English - the language choices were no doubt
inspired by the Cold War atmosphere of that era. On January 7, 1954,
the Georgetown team unveiled the MT program publicly at IBM's Technical
Computing Bureau in New York. Despite the fact that it was limited
to just 250 words, 6 grammar rules, and 49 handpicked sentences, the
idea of MT caught fire in the press.