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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 25, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 38
Language Tech Center Lands at Johns Hopkins

Leading the Human Language Technology Center of Excellence are Gary W. Strong, executive director, and James K. Baker, director of research.
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

Goal is to analyze text, speech, data in multiple languages

By Phil Sneiderman

The Johns Hopkins University has been awarded a long-term multimillion-dollar contract to establish and operate a Human Language Technology Center of Excellence near the Homewood campus. The center's research will focus on advanced technology for automatically analyzing a wide range of speech, text and document image data in multiple languages.

The Human Language Technology Center of Excellence is the result of a competitive solicitation from the U.S. Department of Defense. The contract, signed earlier this year, envisions a minimum of $48.4 million in funding through 2015.

The Human Language Technology Center of Excellence will be staffed by engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, linguists, cognitive experts and other leading researchers. These will include researchers from the university's Whiting School of Engineering and Applied Physics Laboratory, along with others from Johns Hopkins' partner institutions, the University of Maryland in College Park and BBN Technologies, based in Cambridge, Mass. Additional experts from other universities also will assist the center.

Johns Hopkins has hired two outstanding outsiders to lead the new center: Gary W. Strong as executive director and James K. Baker as director of research. The center reports to Johns Hopkins' vice provost for research, Theodore O. Poehler.

According to Strong, "The government is facing massive information overload. We need a better way to sort, filter, interpret and call attention to important material that's buried within the enormous amount of multilingual data being produced every day in other nations. The government does not have nearly enough people with the multiple language skills needed to review this material. We need to develop technology to help."

The center's researchers will work to create and refine such technology over the coming decade. Previous attempts to make major strides in this field have been hampered, Strong said, by a narrow focus and short-term funding. Federal officials believe the new center's extended funding and technology-focused research will produce better results.

As executive director, Strong will draw on his extensive background in academia, private industry and government posts, including a lengthy stint as a program manager and high-level official at the National Science Foundation, focusing on language technology projects.

Poehler says that the Center of Excellence builds upon the pool of prominent researchers already working at the Center for Language and Speech Processing at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland's Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. He believes the center will boost the state's reputation as a thriving high-tech region and will help both universities attract additional respected researchers and grants.

"This will be the nation's premier language technology center, and it's likely to stimulate further expansion both at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland in this important research field," Poehler said. "When the Space Telescope Science Institute opened on our campus, it attracted a lot of top scientists and strengthened our physics and astronomy program. In the same way, the language technology center has the potential to enhance our already strong team in this field."

Melvin Bernstein, the University of Maryland's vice president for research, said, "There's a formidable axis of language expertise that runs through Maryland from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Because of this concentration of expertise, this is a natural spot for a collaborative, interdisciplinary center in this field."

The director of research, Jim Baker, was the founder, chief executive officer and chairman of Dragon Systems, which in 1997 introduced Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the first general purpose automatic dictation system. Baker sold his interest in the company in 2000 and became a Distinguished Career Professor at Carnegie Mellon University before moving to Johns Hopkins.

Together with the faculties at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, the center will help train the next generation of language technology scientists by providing research opportunities, graduate fellowships and doctoral degree programs. The center will invite outside researchers to workshops to share insights and test new ideas.

"In addition to fostering lively research collaborations, this center will provide important new training opportunities for students who want to learn from and build upon the work of some of the top scientists in the field of human language technology," said William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins.

C.D. Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, said, "The interface between language and technology is simply too complex for a narrow perspective. Teams of experts are needed all around. We will draw on our excellent faculty and scholars in linguistics, information science, neurobiology, computer science and software design."

Although the center will be addressing government needs, software developed by the center could have many commercial applications.


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