Computerized language translation started 58 years ago with IBM and Georgetown University

Hard to imagine but it has been 58 years since IBM and Georgetown University teamed up to run what they said was at the time the first English-to-Russian language computer translation program.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the individual phrases they were plugged into punch cards and run on the big IBM 701 mainframe in 1954, can now be typed into Google Translate on your smartphone and handled in about 10 seconds.

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Still, the IBM program at the time was heralded as a major breakthrough. From an IBM press release on the event, which occurred on Jan. 7, 1954:

"A girl who didn't understand a word of the language of the Soviets punched out the Russian messages on IBM punch cards. The [IBM 701 which as known as the 'brain'] dashed off its English translations on an automatic printer at the breakneck speed of two and a half lines per second.

"'Mi pyeryedayem mislyi posryedstvom ryechyi,' the girl punched. And the 701 responded: 'We transmit thoughts by means of speech.'

"'Vyelyichyina ugla opryedyelyayetsya otnoshyenyiyem dlyini dugi k radyiusu,' the punch rattled. The 'brain' came back: 'Magnitude of angle is determined by the relation of length of arc to radius.'

"'Myezhdunarodnoye ponyimanyiye yavlyayetsya vazhnim faktorom v ryeshyenyiyi polyityichyeskix voprosov,' the girl tapped out. And the computer translated: 'International understanding constitutes an important factor in decision of political questions.'

"More than sixty Russian sentences were given to the 'brain' altogether. This amazing instrument was interrupted in its 16-hour-a-day schedule of solving problems in nuclear physics, rocket trajectories, weather forecasting and other mathematical wizardry. Its attention was turned at brief intervals from these lightning-like numerical calculations to the altogether different consideration of logic in an entirely new and strange realm for giant electronic data processing machines: the study of human behavior -- specifically, the human use of words. The result, as publicly proved today, was an unqualified success.

"Although IBM emphasized that it is not yet possible 'to insert a Russian book at one end and come out with an English book at the other,' [IBM] predicted that 'five, perhaps three years hence, interlingual meaning conversion by electronic process in important functional areas of several languages may well be an accomplished fact.'"

Interestingly, that sort of programming translation, while a hot topic during this period of time, proved difficult, expensive and ultimately controversial. In 1964 a group of scientists convened by the Department of Defense and National Science Foundation, known as the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee (ALPAC), evaluated language translation computing technology and largely killed the effort with a report issued in 1966.

The 1966 ALPAC report, "Language and Machines: Computers in Translation and Linguistics," according to a Wikipedia entry, "was highly critical of the existing efforts, demonstrating that the systems were no faster than human translations, while also demonstrating that the supposed lack of translators was in fact a surplus, and as a result of supply and demand issues, human translation was relatively inexpensive -- about $6 per 1,000 words. "

Longtime machine translation expert John Hutchins wrote years later: "The best known event in the history of machine translation is without doubt the publication of the report by the ALPAC in 1966. Its effect was to bring to an end the substantial funding of machine translation (MT) research in the United States for some twenty years. More significantly, perhaps, was the clear message to the general public and the rest of the scientific community that MT was hopeless. For years afterwards, an interest in MT was something to keep quiet about; it was almost shameful. To this day, the 'failure' of MT is still repeated by many as an indisputable fact. The impact of ALPAC is undeniable. Such was the notoriety of its report that from time to time in the next decades researchers would discuss among themselves whether "another ALPAC" might not be inflicted upon MT."

Beyond the controversy, computer language learning is ongoing today in some interesting ways.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter @nwwlayer8 and on Facebook.

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