Digital technology is evolving at stunning speed, slashing the prices of all sorts of digital gadgets and linking numerous countries through the ever-growing World Wide Web. But these developments fail to satisfy Kazuhiko Nishi, who wants tools created to tear down the technological and language barriers dividing the world’s developed and developing countries.
Without such instruments, the rift will continue to widen and developing countries will have few opportunities to pursue their future prosperity, warns Nishi, 45, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Without computers and the Internet, it will be impossible for (such countries) to catch up with advanced nations,” Nishi said during a recent interview.
He is currently helping develop a possible solution — a $100 single-chip personal computer equipped with a browser-based multilingual translation system. He aims to complete the PC, which will support 189 languages, by 2009.
Nishi has long been a legend in Japanese computer circles, leading Japan’s computer industry with innovative ideas since the mid-1970s.
Cofounding ASCII Corp. in 1977, Nishi later served as vice president of Microsoft Corp. from 1979 and played a key role in expanding the firm’s business in its infancy.
Assisting Bill Gates, he clinched deals to sell Microsoft’s BASIC programming language to NEC Corp. and other Japanese manufacturers before he left the firm in 1986.
Although Nishi himself is an eloquent English speaker, the importance of English-language knowledge for building national strength hit him when he visited the high-tech and computer circles of developing countries such as China and India, where he saw the stark differences between people depending on their English ability.
If left unattended, only people with English skills and Internet connectivity will have access to the latest knowledge and information, most of which is stored on English-language Web sites, Nishi argued.
The computer researcher said he believes a cheaper single-chip computer can be assembled with all its circuits printed on one sheet of cardboard, together with a one-piece keyboard.
This $100 machine would have sufficient power to ensure compatibility with major operating systems such as Windows CE and Linux, Nishi said, adding that even prices of some standard PCs have fallen to around $350 of late. On the translation system development front, Nishi has been heading a research team at the United Nations University in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward for over five years. While the system currently supports 16 languages, the researchers aim to eventually cover the 189 languages of U.N. member states.
The system first translates the original text into Universal Network Language, an intermediate computer code that currently has a vocabulary dictionary of more than 200,000 words.
The browser-based software then translates it into the target language while translating the UNL version back into the original again, allowing Web-page builders to easily check the translation’s accuracy.
In November, Nishi pitched to MIT his idea of combining the $100 computer, the multilingual translation system, a dish satellite Internet access system and a payment system for Web site viewing to help bridge the widening digital divide.
MIT officials immediately accepted his proposals in what they described as “the shortest interview they ever had,” giving him the post of visiting professor to head the Universal Knowledge Project.
He is now hammering out technological details before launching fundraising campaigns for the project at MIT.
While the idea may seem a little far-fetched now, Nishi remains optimistic, saying many groups understand the importance of the translation project at UNU and have been willing to provide funds.
“The technologies that will be used (in the project) themselves are nothing special. They can all be realized in just one year,” Nishi said, adding he hopes to ship the first computer in 2003.
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