Nine months ago, Hong Kong software developer iSilk was quietly positioned as the world's only Chinese-English translation portal, providing free online translation. Now the iSilk home page is no more than an e-mail link with an 'under construction' notice. So has iSilk gone the way of so many other Web portals? Not exactly. Though the translation portal has gone, iSilk is very much alive. While continuing its research-and-development work, the company has abandoned the consumer front-end in favour of licensing its technology to full-time content portals. 'The technology that we have is enabling technology,' chairman Dekai Wu said. 'It is infrastructure. It is something we help a lot of companies to make money with in their models. 'We work with partners to enable them in ways that use the language technology to directly drive their business models. That is our model. We are not a consumer brand or destination site.' The first partner was Hongkong.com, which began offering iSilk's Turbo Translator on its site in March. Turbo Translator automatically translates Internet content from simplified or traditional Chinese to English and vice versa. Users can choose to translate an entire page, selected text or individual words on a page. Mr Wu developed the technology while under contract to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), which he joined in 1993. In the past year, he raised capital from Asia-based 'angel' investors and bought out HKUST's share in the company. 'Our business model is not the 'gee let's see how much money you can lose' kind of business model,' he said. 'We are looking at a field that still has a huge span between what is commercially extremely useful today and we can make extremely well today, versus these extremely long-range goals like speech translation.' It was those long-range goals, rather than the Turbo Translator, that attracted the investment interest. 'This is the field that is really going to explode in the coming decade in software,' Mr Wu said. 'It is hard to imagine any other software area that is going to explode at the same level as natural language processing. We're entering an era that, to make an analogy, if you were looking at a company like Intel or any of the chip companies in the late 60s, you were starting out on a tremendous growth path over the decades to follow, with no end in sight.' Natural language processing technology is a means to build artificial intelligence systems capable of automatically understanding and translating human speech or language. Most importantly, the technology enables machines to learn independently of human input. The biggest hurdle facing traditional machine translation is that virtually every word in any language carries multiple meanings. Translation is made even more difficult by regional language differences and the differences in language structures, such as between English and Chinese. Natural language processing uses statistics to analyse and understand the vagaries of syntax and context. 'It is necessary to have the computer learn those types of knowledge by itself. It has proven to be one of the most challenging areas in computer science,' Mr Wu said. 'Natural language processing is now seen as inevitably perhaps the single most important area of software technology of the coming decade.' Its possibilities have only begun to be realised in the past two to three years, as academics from disciplines such as computational and traditional linguistics, statistical analysis, machine translation and speech recognition find they have many common problems and solutions. Then iSilk came about partly because a number of these specialists were attracted to work at HKUST. While Mr Wu continues to be involved with the university's Human Language Technology Centre, iSilk now operates independently. The company, based in Tech Centre in Kowloon Tong, maintains a technology centre in Shenzhen and an office in San Francisco. But Mr Wu said location was no hindrance, even for a research-driven, high-technology firm. 'What the Internet has done is make it irrelevant where in the world you are in many ways, because that same technology and enabling infrastructure is provided anywhere. It doesn't matter where you are,' he said. For the average Hong Kong technology firm, hiring skilled staff is not easy, but Mr Wu described iSilk as 'a talent magnet'. 'The guys who are really good, the best in their field, always want to work with other guys who are really good,' he said. 'What we have found - and this is extremely different from the rest of Hong Kong - is that our particular group of people attracts good people to come to Hong Kong to work with us. 'And we have a stellar team and it is truly different from anything that you would normally find in Hong Kong. 'This is a true high-technology company. It is not what you typically hear people loosely bandying about terms like tech stocks, tech company when it is nothing more than a Web site with a business plan. 'iSilk in that sense is a true high-technology company. You can't imagine running such a company without a team of highly trained PhD-level folks. 'You really need a tremendous amount of skill . . . There is only a handful of people in the world with that kind of skill.' It is something we help a lot of companies to make money with . . .