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Imagine the informational and cultural isolation that can result if you don’t speak one of the world’s major languages. Think about how limited your Internet experience would be. This is a reality for billions of people worldwide, who find themselves cut off linguistically from this great knowledge resource.
A related problem affects millions of people whose primary fluency is in a major language but whose ancestral traditions arise from a different linguistic heritage. These people find themselves increasingly separated from their ancestral culture, which can only be fully appreciated through an understanding of its native tongue.
Seeking to bring the power of computing to bear on these problems, Microsoft Research is pleased to announce the launch of Microsoft Translator Hub. We’re extremely excited by the potential of this tool to provide meaningful machine translation of lower-resourced languages and to help researchers and others build more targeted language models. The value of the Hub was very apparent to me during two recent events I hosted on opposite sides of the world, the first in California, and the second in Nepal.
California Dreamin’—in Hmong
In late November 2011, Microsoft Research Connections hosted a two-day workshop on Hmong Language Preservation at California State University Fresno, during which the local Hmong community provided input on the White Hmong-English machine translator. (White Hmong, or Hmong Dao, is one of several Hmong dialects.) Hmong is one of the indigenous languages of the mountain people of Southeast Asia, thousands of whom now live in the United States, Australia, and France. As such, many of the Hmong have raised their children and grandchildren without the benefit of immersion in their traditional culture and language. Instead, they have focused on integration into the dominant language and culture of the societies in which they now live.
In general, the second generation grows up somewhat bilingual, speaking Hmong with their parents and other elders, but using English at school and work. When they have children, they speak to them in English. This means the third generation acquires only limited fluency in their ancestral tongue by listening to their grandparents speak with their parents. And given that Hmong has only recently become a written language—within the last 60 years—many of the fluent speakers may not be literate.
These factors have led to a critical and progressive decline in the language’s usage in Hmong communities in the United States, making language preservation a major concern for the Hmong. During the California workshop, Microsoft Research Connections, in collaboration with Professor Phong Yang, a linguist at Cal State Fresno, explored machine translation as a method to preserve the Hmong language and culture.
The participation of the Hmong community was outstanding. Community members of all ages, from children to grandparents, worked with the Machine Translator Hub’s Reviewer UI, offering suggestions and words of encouragement. Hopes were realistic: no one expected the computer to provide a perfect translation between Hmong and English. One amused Hmong parent observed that “it speaks ‘Hmonglish,’ just like my children.” The overall reaction was extremely positive, reflecting the community’s strong desire to preserve their language and culture.
A tangible outcome of the event, hard work by the Microsoft Translator team, and the continued efforts of the Fresno Hmong community is that Microsoft released a public version of Hmong on Bing Translator on February 21 in honor of International Mother Language Day.
Teaching Students to Scale Language Technology Peaks in Nepal
In Nepal, Microsoft Research Connections co-hosted a two-day "Nepali Language Preservation Workshop” in conjunction with Kathmandu University and the nonprofit organization Language Technology Kendra. The goal was to begin the process of strengthening Nepali’s position in today’s digital world, bringing it up to the level of major world languages and increasing access to non-Nepali language Internet content for monolingual Nepali speakers. These efforts expand the presence of Nepali in addition to keeping it vibrant. As a lower-resourced language with a large speaker population (more than 30 million), Nepali is an ideal candidate language for the Microsoft Translator Hub.
David Harrison, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered languages, and I led a session for linguists and translators that focused on reviewing translation quality and providing us with valuable feedback on the reviewer interface. Approximately 1,200 sentences were translated and edited on the first day, and more on the second. Participants reported a number of bugs and suggested improvements.
Meanwhile, in a parallel track, computer science students and educators met under the guidance of Microsoft researchers Christophe Poulain and Sundar Poudel. The purpose of this session was to teach tomorrow’s computer scientists and computer science educators how they can access the nascent Nepali translator model, being refined in the other session, through the Microsoft Translator APIs in a private workspace for automatic translation between Nepali and other languages. By training educators, we give them the tools to go back to their institutions and teach others how to develop web service translation applications, thereby growing young experts in the field of natural language processing.
The enthusiasm and productive work of the workshop participants affirmed that Nepali was an apt choice for the workshop. As one participant observed, "If we can translate Nepali, we can communicate with the outsider world easier." Another noted that “the rural people don't understand English, so if we give them a translator, they will feel good and [find it] easy to read information on foreign-language websites."
I firmly believe that translation systems that can engender community participation, such as Microsoft Translator Hub, can have a beneficial impact on reducing the decline of lower-resourced languages. But it takes a strong commitment by a community to make this a reality. Machine translation mimics how a human learns a new language. Like a person, the translation software needs materials to read comparatively in both languages. It has to be taught and makes mistakes, but it gets better and better as it gets more exposure to the new language (data). Building up that language data to give the system more exposure is one of the chief practical values of events such as these workshops, where the participants actually teach the computer how to speak their native language.
Whether helping to preserve the links to an ancestral culture or working to bring a language into the digital world, Microsoft Translator Hub demonstrates Microsoft’s ongoing engagement and commitment to creating positive social change through technology.
Take a look at the Microsoft Translator Hub website and ask for an invitation to participate.
—Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural Interactions, Microsoft Research Connections
Last year, women accounted for only 14 percent of computer science college graduates in the United States, according to the Computing Research Association. That’s down from 35 percent in 1985, despite U.S. Labor Department statistics that show computing to be among the fastest-growing, most in-demand fields, with too few qualified candidates to fill the available openings. In addition, studies reveal that executives value the variety of perspectives that comes with team diversity, yet another reason for needing greater female participation in computing careers.
As a technology company and innovation leader, Microsoft is passionate about increasing the participation of women in computing, which means attracting more female students to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. CEO Steve Ballmer has acknowledged this need, observing that “…we need to keep more women interested longer in their lives in STEM subjects.” We know this will require a concerted effort across private companies, NGOs, IGOs, government, and academia. We recognize that it’s vital for young women to get support during their undergraduate and graduate studies and to be exposed to opportunities in computer science, which is why Microsoft Research is proud to support the NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund and to fund the Microsoft Research Graduate Women’s Scholarship.
I remember my first year of college engineering studies: I took Computer Science 101, studying PASCAL. I found it extremely boring, and I had no idea what careers were available in computer science, even though I was working at the school’s computer center where I supported students in computer labs, installed network cards into student computers, and helped the IT staff build the university’s firewall. At the time, I had no idea these duties, which I really enjoyed, were potential careers in computer science. After being approached by one of the professors to conduct research on building an animatronic bison for the engineering department, I decided to focus my energies on mechanical engineering and robotics. I didn’t realize that robotics could be part of the computer science world. A future in computer science engineering seemed out of the question—so there I was: one less woman in computer science.
Today, I want to do everything possible so that young women don’t make the same mistakes as I did. It is critical for us at Microsoft Research to familiarize young women with the amazing career opportunities in computing. In furtherance of that goal, I would like to highlight the programs and recipients of this year’s NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund and the Microsoft Research Graduate Women’s Scholarship.
NCWIT is a national coalition of more than 200 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits working to strengthen the technology workforce and cultivate innovation by increasing the participation of women. Its Academic Alliance brings together more than 250 distinguished representatives from the computer science and IT departments of colleges across the country, spanning research universities, community colleges, women’s colleges, and minority-serving institutions. In 2007, Microsoft Research initiated the Seed Fund in partnership with NCWIT Academic Alliance. The NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund provides U.S. academic institutions with funds (up to US$15,000 per project) to develop and implement initiatives for recruiting and retaining women in computer science and information technology fields of study. To date, the Seed Fund has awarded US$315,450. In partnership with NCWIT Academic Alliance, we would like to announce the 2012 winners:
In addition, we know that a woman’s first two years of computer science graduate study are the most critical. During this time, she must determine her area of focus, increase her confidence in the field, enhance her capabilities in publishing and research, and build her network. This is why Microsoft Research created the Women’s Graduate Scholarship, which provides a US$15,000 stipend plus a US$2,000 travel and conference allowance to women in their second year of graduate study (at a U.S. or Canadian university), helping them gain visibility in their departments, acquire mentorship, and cover the burgeoning cost of graduate programs. Winners of the 2012 Microsoft Research Graduate Scholarship are:
Congratulations to all the winning programs and students. We look forward to great things from 2012’s women in computing.
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections
On December 2, 2011, Microsoft Research Asia held the Kinect for Windows Workshop 2011 in Beijing, China. The event, which drew more than 100 participants, including faculty and students from Chinese universities, provided a forum for exploring research that utilizes Kinect for Windows. It not only offered a great opportunity for faculty members and students to showcase their Kinect-based research and exchange creative ideas, it also fostered enhanced cooperation between Chinese academic institutions and Microsoft Research Asia.
The workshop kicked off with a welcome speech from Baining Guo, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia. He highlighted Microsoft Research Asia’s contributions in research fields that use Kinect. His speech was followed by a keynote speech from Stewart Tansley, director at Microsoft Research Connections. Tansley shared the latest strategies for and status of Kinect for Windows on a global level.
After opening addresses, the university participants divided into faculty and student groups. The faculty participants heard lectures on Kinect-based research and development from four Microsoft Research Asia researchers: Yichen Wei (Visual Computing Group), Xin Tong (Internet Graphics Group), Sergio Paolantonio (HCI Group), and Frank Soong (Speech Group). These lectures introduced the audience to such research prototypes as the Kinect Identity Project and Kinect-based Object Digitization Project.
In addition, a number of professors shared their own projects, which captured the depth of the innovative research surrounding Kinect. Highlights included presentations by:
Professor Xilin Chen, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who introduced his project, Sign Language Recognition and Translation Based on Kinect, which uses multinational input data for sign recognition. The resulting technology could make it easier for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to communicate, thereby helping them function more effectively in their daily life.
Professor Lianwen Jin, of the South China University of Technology, who demonstrated his project, Writing in the Air by Hand—Recognition of Virtual Handwritten Characters Using Kinect, which aims to develop a Chinese character recognition system for Kinect. The project addresses the broader problem of providing a way for Kinect users to input text, enabling them to do so simply by using hand gestures.
Professor Ligang Liu, of Zhejiang University, who showcased his project, Capturing Human Models Using Multiple Kinects, which uses multiple Kinect units to set up a novel scanning system for capturing three-dimensional (3-D) models of the human body. This research takes advantage of the Kinect sensors—which are designed to facilitate computer-human interaction—to obtain in-depth 3-D data on the entire body, even when the body is in motion. A first possible application could be personal avatars that help users get a good fit for clothing they purchase online.
Researchers from Microsoft Research Asia were actively involved in all three of these projects, demonstrating the robust state of collaboration between Microsoft Research Asia and Chinese academic institutions. Commenting on the importance of such interactive projects, Professor Chen stated, “In the future, when realizing our ideas, we hope to increase our cooperation with Microsoft Research Asia.”
The student group attended a number of sessions tailored specifically for them, including a speech on computer art, delivered by Tsinghua University Professor Yingqing Xu, and an explanation of the operating principles of Kinect, presented by DJ Lan of Microsoft Asia R&D. Two Microsoft Research Asia interns also shared their Kinect application development experience with the student participants and joined them in hands-on projects.
The demo session generated the most excitement, and featured 15 booths of posters, videos, and demo programs for Kinect projects. The booths were organized by professors and students who delivered detailed demonstrations of their projects. The demos attracted many attendees, including Microsoft Research Asia staff members who participated in discussions with professors and students, and were inspired by their innovative ideas.
The workshop also inspired faculty and students, who left with a better understanding of the possibilities for Kinect-based research. In addition, the workshop bolstered opportunities for future collaboration between Microsoft Research Asia and the Chinese academic community. As Lolan Song, the senior director of Microsoft Research Asia observed, “It’s a great opportunity for Microsoft Research Asia to strengthen communication and collaboration with faculty and students. Microsoft Research Asia is committed to exploring more qualified research projects with Chinese universities and academic institutions, as we believe such collaboration will have long-term social benefits.”
—Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia