Apps & Design

Robert G. Brown rgb at
Mon Jul 3 07:27:13 PDT 2000

On Sat, 1 Jul 2000, Gregory R. Warnes wrote:

> Careful.  You are equating "the problem consists of independent pieces"
> with parallelizable. 
> Stating that natural language processing is inherently non-parallel
> ignores the fact that the only system known to correctly process natural
> language (the brain) is made up of a lot of independent processing units!
> The current tools may not correctly approach the problem correctly, but
> that does not mean it isn't possible. 

I'd agree with this.  I'd also argue that translation CAN be largely
parallelized -- it is just a question of granularity.  Parallelizing
word by word isn't too sensible, because as Alan noted there are
moderately nonlocal referents and word order in sentences matters.
Parallelizing by sentence (a coarser grainsize) would work much better
-- sentences largely stand alone.  However, to get nuances of meaning,
it might be useful to have the preceding and following sentences.
Parallelizing by paragraph or by "page" (say 4096 characters mod
paragraph) is almost certainly adequate to get the internal sense of the
paragraphs and sentences correct, but there might need to be some
conflict/continuity resolution at page boundaries -- say have each node
translate the preceding/following paragraphs and compare, and shift
windows (or even auto-rescale the grain size) until things are "smooth".

Even with quite a lot of rescaling of page size and internode comparison
of boundary regions, the parallel speedup one could realize would be
quite significant because I'd guess that translation is pretty system
intensive work -- looking up base word translation(s) in a hash,
determining case, tense, verb conjugation, identifying and translating
idiomatic expressions as a unit, a lot of work -- and communications
would be mostly if not entirely local, to the node ahead and the node
behind (possibly with some data propagating all the way down the chain.
If one assumes that one has 1.5 MB of text to translate (a decent sized
novel) on 100 nodes, even if every node ended up translating 30K and
transmitting 10K up and downhill to its neighbors, one could expect a
speedup of maybe 30 to 50 and little loss of translation quality.

If one wasn't translating a single work, but was instead translating
e.g. all the works in the Library of Congress, the problem is obviously
embarrassingly parallel -- one could select as a grainsize whole
"independent" books and obtain excellent parallel speedup with almost
any number of nodes.

This wouldn't address Alan's basic observation, though, that machine
translations of this sort (parallel or serial, really) lack global human
context and hence will make heinous mistakes.  It also oversimplifies
the very severe problems associated with translating between really
different languages that share no significant cultural referents in the
first place, e.g. Chinese and English.  I have no idea how well ANY
translation program works for languages this different -- but I'd assert
that whatever serial translation program one wrote could be cleverly
parallelized to obtain parallel speedup at some suitable granularity,
even if that granularity was at the level of independent works.


Robert G. Brown	             
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at

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