x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Translations via phone a step closer to reality

A Kuwaiti company is on the verge of a huge technological breakthrough in the field of automated language translation.

A Kuwaiti company is on the verge of a huge technological breakthrough in the field of automated language translation after acquiring a Silicon Valley start-up specialising in mobile voice applications. Sakhr Software, which has designed an advanced suite of software and hardware that lets computers understand, translate and process the Arabic language, announced yesterday the acquisition of Mobile Directions, an American company that has developed applications for mobile phone users that allow them to speak requests into their phone and receive the answers via text.

The acquisition is one of just a handful of cases where American technology companies have been acquired by their peers in the Middle East. Sakhr, which has been active in the Arabic computing field for more than two decades, will use the technical talent and intellectual property gained with its American purchase to develop mobile phone applications that will allow Arabic and English speakers to talk into their mobile phones and have the device translate and speak back their words in the other language.

The company already has a working version of the software for the Apple iPhone. Hythem el Nazer, a senior vice president at TA Associates, a private equity investor in technology, media and telecommunications companies, said the software could change the industry. "I've seen Sakhr's speech-to-speech mobile translator on the iPhone in action, and it could be a game changer," he said. Until now, offering almost instantaneous spoken translation between two languages has been beyond the computing abilities of hand-held devices.

Sakhr will overcome the challenge by using a mobile internet connection to send the speech into a "cloud" of internet-connected data servers, which will do the hard work of translation and send the result back down to the handset. "It is really a new idea, it's new even in Silicon Valley," said Fahad al Sharekh, the chief executive of Sakhr. Sakhr's software will allow conversations to take place between people that do not share a common language. Its government and military customers have already expressed their intentions to use the system, and Sakhr says a consumer version of the system will be released later this year.

The US Army and the homeland security department are big customers of the company. Sakhr also works with other government customers including the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman. tgara@thenational.ae