In technology news yesterday, social media giant Facebook announced that it had acquired Mobile Technologies for an undisclosed sum. The Pittsburgh-based company has long been an acknowledged leader in speech recognition and machine translation technologies for consumer, business, and government initiatives. Users of its popular Jibbigo Translator app may have cause for concern.
From the Halls of Academia to the Battlefields?
Mobile Technologies was founded in 2001 with the strong backing of teams at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany. Its signature product Jibbigo was the world’s first speech-to-speech translation app with its launch in October 2009. The app, for Android and iOS platforms, continued to benefit from the research developments in speech recognition technology provided by those two academic bodies.
Jibbigo’s technology developments have been strongly driven by the interests of military and academic forces alike. The Jibbigo website — which now has only the acquisition announcement — proudly boasted news articles that served as case studies of the product’s usage by U.S. military personnel.
Just this past July, for example, The National ran a multi-page feature on Mobile Technologies’ work to develop language tech for use in postwar Iraq. According to the article, an initiative led by Carnegie Mellon University Dr. Alex Waibel for Jibbigo fed the product’s database with some 40,000 Iraqi Arabic words to generate voice-to-voice translation into English and voice-to-text translation into more than a dozen other languages. A similar report from August of last year detailed Jibbigo’s use by U.S. naval forces participating in a medical translation initiative focused on the Asia-Pacific region.
And Could You Point Me to the Bathrooms, Please?
Of course, Mobile Technologies enjoyed attention in other areas as well. The company teamed up with travel guide leader Lonely Planet to release company-branded version of Jibbigo designed especially for its travel service buyers.
Moreover, while the company’s offline language bundles were offered as in-app purchases, Jibbigo Translator was promoted as a free translation app for the same target segment. Unsurprising, Mobile Technologies also gave back to the academic environment that gave rise to it. The company announced the release of the world’s first, automated, real-time lecture simultaneous translation system back in 2012. It was demonstrated at the University Without Language Barriers conference at KIT.
As we’ve written in our Technology Roundups, several decades of research in speech recognition and machine translation technologies have already shown that it can deliver value for a wide range of applications. Advances that drive understanding in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and industry across language barriers can ultimately benefit us all. Speculation about Facebook’s motives — specifically about whether this is Facebook’s attempt to challenge Google Now and Siri in voice-driven search — may cast a shadow but do not out dim the light of its greater potential.
The Future’s Bright … Right?
Yes, the Facebook announcement by Tom Stocky, who formerly worked for Google and is now the director of product at Facebook, does leave plenty of questions unanswered. And knowing what we know now about the U.S. government, whose actions are of course under considerable scrutiny in the wake of the scandals around the NSA and Snowden, has us wondering what the acquisition will mean for Mobile Technologies’ military-related work. And what will happen with Jibbigo Translator as an independent app on the Google Play and Apple iTunes Store platforms?
While it’s easy to see Jibbigo’s application for the company’s large base of users, it’s harder to see how humanitarian aid workers, first responder, and other aid personnel will continue to benefit.
Nevertheless, what Facebook brings to the table in 1.1 billion monthly users is an undeniable boon for the language technology industry.