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LTI Seminar Series

From Research Lab to Jungle Ops: Computer Speech Translation for Humanitarian Relief

Alex Waibel, Friday, October 23, 2009

2:30pm, Rangos 3, University Center

Waibel photo

Our world continues to be rocked by natural disasters and political calamities at unpredictable times and places, generating humanitarian needs that can often not be met locally alone. As the world responds, however, relief organizations and volunteers face communication challenges imposed by language barriers and cultural differences.

To satisfy the communication needs, we have worked for many years on building and deploying speech communication systems that would provide human-to-human language interpretation and have explored them in actual field use. In addition to the scientific problems associated with speech and language technology, such a goal harbors numerous practical, logistical and financial pitfalls that one stumbles upon when one leaves the comfort of our research labs.

In this talk I will tell the story of this (ongoing) adventure in three parts:

1.) Technology: How does a speech-to-speech translation system work and what does it do? What levels of performance can we expect, and what language assistance can it offer? Can it handle many languages and how flexible is it to be used in different field situations? What interfaces and what platforms are needed for field use? How can it be built, maintained and ported inexpensively?

2.) Money: How much does it cost to develop a speech translator? Who pays for the development of such systems? I will discuss our Robin Hood approach: we sign up people in the developing world to provide language expertise over the internet; we build, improve and market the technology in the developed world; with the proceeds we improve and adapt the technology for health care missions and redeploy it in the developing world. We have formed several companies around the world that provide system development, product distribution, marketing, and data collection.

3.) Deployment: We examine, how it all fits together and what lessons we have learned from three different healthcare missions that we are attempting to support: in the mountains of Honduras, remote villages of Thailand, and in the jungles of Papua, Indonesia.

Warning: No equations, but plenty of system demos, pictures, movies and 'war' stories from the field.

For more information and ground-breaking developments, please visit the International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies at and the jibbigo company at

Alex Waibel is a Professor of Computer Science at the Language Technology Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and at the Institute of Anthropomatics at the University of Karlsruhe.  He directs the international Center for Advanced Communication Technologies (InterACT) with research interests in multimodal and multilingual human communication systems.  Dr. Waibel's team pioneered many of the first domain-limited and the domain–unlimited speech translators. He was one of the founders and chairmen (1998-2000) of C-STAR, the consortium for speech translation research. He has published extensively in the field, received several patents and awards, and built several successful companies. He received his BS, MS and PhD degrees at MIT and CMU, respectively.


Waibel poster