Saturday, June 23, 2012

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Even with artificial intelligence, language is not something machines are good at. Unlike their human counterparts, computers cannot easily point the difference between, say, a molehill and an ant hill. Sarcasm, jokes – even the most complicated language algorithm has a hard time with those. Add in wordplay, irony and cultural context to the mix, and it will be one hell of a day in a computer’s life.

Luis von Ahn, a computer scientist turned entrepreneur, is capitalizing on that human edge to decode stuff for the success of his startup, Duolingo. Duolingo utilizes groups of language learners to translate text on the Web. Duolingo offers basic language lessons to the learners, and then, little by little, from simple to difficult, they’re given text to translate.

Individuals and other entities may submit content to Duolingo for translation, and Duolingo offers, for now, at least, free translation services. As it is in its early days, there is no quality control mechanism in place yet, except for users voting for the best translation. The site is currently on invitation-only mode and is limited to Spanish, English, French and German translation. For its lessons, Duolingo taps into online content that is not under copyright or is released under a Creative Commons license.

For Duolingo to be successful, it’s going to need a giant crowd of learners. The better they become, the more chances of accurate translation. At Duolingo, big chunks of text are broken down into easy and difficult bits by a machine and distributed to learners depending on their levels and put back together, yet again by a machine. Eventually, Duolingo will be charging for its translation services for faster and more precise translations.

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