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Magic talk by mouse

Shradhya Khatoor is a cerebral palsy patient. She can’t speak, and her motor neuron problem prevents her from writing. She is also a research assistant at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP). But her only means of communication is through a book of pictures and English and Hindi alphabets, which she points at to string words. For the first time on Tuesday, Shradhya used a computer to form a sentence — Didi rang se rang karegi — which was spoken aloud.

Responsible for this moment of magic in Shradhya’s world was a bunch from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. A year ago, professor Anupam Basu had initiated the research project amongst his students. “At the communication empowerment laboratory in IIT-Kharagpur, we work to bridge the digital divide between the haves and have-nots. I thought of cerebral palsy patients because they often have severe problems communicating, but are very neglected,” explains Basu.

Sponsored by Media Lab Asia, the software was developed by about eight to 10 students from various departments. The “first-of-its-kind-in-India” product enables the user to click on a series of images, accompanied by words, thus forming a sentence. There are choices of tenses, verbs, nouns, subjects, objects, etc. The icons, all designed by IICP, are constantly highlighted by a moving bar. The user only has to click — on a mouse fashioned out of a visiting-card box — on a highlighted icon. The programme forms a grammatically-correct sentence and the text to speech (TTS) component speaks it.

The breakthrough, say the creators, is that although it contains the format in English, Hindi and Bengali, “the Bengali TTS is probably the first one in use in India”.

On Tuesday, Basu and a few students put the programme to practical use at IICP. Shradhya, within 10 minutes of ‘saying’ her first sentence out loud, even manages to find some errors.

“She is proof that the software is working,” smiles Basu. Swati Lahiri, IICP coordinator on the project, is particularly excited about the importance of the programme for the children. “Usually, they use a picture or a word to get their message across. But now, they can also learn the language, since the computer will form a sentence with the proper syntax,” she says.

Samit Bhattacharya and Kaushik Chakraborty are two Kharagpur students doing their research in artificial intelligence. “The programme is made up of several components, like natural language processing, speech synthesis and computer-human interaction. We each worked on our area of specialisation,” says Chakraborty.

Next up is version two, where there will be a dictionary that the user can choose from, integrated with the editor software developed by IIT students, which converts the language typed in English into Bengali or Hindi. Then, they hope to go portable. “We are talking to industrial partners to market the product at an affordable price. IICP will test it till November and give us the feedback. But till then, if a parent or NGO approaches us, we will give the software to them free,” finishes Basu.

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