Early this morning I had a chance to speak with Ase (pronounced 'Ace') Deliri, curator of SiLo, the world's first digital language library. At its core, SiLo is a mash of Wikipedia and Babelfish, an open database focused on facilitating real conversations with real people.
"If you have 800-1200 words in your vocabulary, you can carry on a daily conversation. That is what we are looking at. How do you get a conversation going?"
Ase believes heavily in the power of language. He calls it "mankind's greatest invention" and adds that "everything is an expression of language." While the SiLo app is technically a (free) product of Deliri Inc, Ase claims he does not see himself as the owner. He finds the title curator more apt, and views the information collected by SiLo as property of the world.
I ask about censorship. Has he given any thought to what would happen if a government was to demand a word / language be censored in their country?
"Whatever you're doing to communicate, that's your thing. We're not here to tell you 'don't use profanity' or 'don't use hate speech'. We're not policing the content. We're policing the accuracy of what is being said. And, of course, the quality."
But Ase did leave the door open for some form of editorial control.
"Of course, perceptions will evolve over time. If we notice there's a significant number of things that are really bothering people...we will take the democratic approach."
But that would seem to be the most extreme scenario.
"I am personally against censorship. I'm from Afganistan...when I was born, it was under communist rule. So I'm very much pro-free speech. Regardless of the form it comes in."
SiLo sounds wonderful- in theory. The actual site itself is still rather sparse. It seems a few thousand users short of reaching its 'tipping point'. Ase doesn't hide from the fact that SiLo is still half-formed. A project like this takes time to build up steam- which is why they started with an online database and not an app.
"If you throw it up right away, you're gonna disappoint more users than you're going to delight. Because there's not enough content stuck on the database." He adds that he will consider an individual language "ready" when the database has "enough information to carry on a conversation".
Deliri Inc. is currently working on a very specific database of Farsi-English translations, focused around the sort of questions soldiers in an Afghani village might need to ask. "When they [Canadian soldiers] go onto the field with a particular translator with them, it takes thirty-five minutes to get a piece of information they could have gotten in one minute. But because the conversation carries on and takes longer than necessary, their lives are at risk because they're outside a lot longer."
Deliri, Inc. has taken input from Canadian armed forces to develop their field translations.
"They told me, if you put this into the system, and we can ask this exactly what we want to know, that conversation...can be cut down to 15 minutes. That's thirty minutes less exposure in a dangerous area."
Ase goes on to explain the app's development process: "I asked for a script of what a soldier tends to ask when they're in the field...and then we took the other approach. What if you are being asked these questions? What sort of answers would you want to give?"
The system he outlined was quite impressive. But how far is it from being practically functional?
"It takes a bit of time to build this base up. Right now, it's useful- but there's a little bit of hesitancy. People ask, 'How do I know if this is accurate or not?'"
To improve reliability, SiLo uses a seven star rating system. One star is flags the content as incorrect or low quality. Seven stars identifies it as trustworthy. Translations will require a certain number of seven star ratings to become 'verified'. Deliri Inc, also plans to add in a moderator section in the very near future. Qualified language experts will be able to verify their creditials and police content within their sphere of expertise. And Ase doesn't expect them to work for free.
"Let's say you're a professional translator. This is sort of working against you, because you are giving your expertise to us and you're saying, 'What am I going to get in return for it?'"
"Eventually (he emphasized that word)...it's going to be set up like a YouTube channel. If you are a professional translator, and your translations are constantly being used, there's going to be advertising systems built on the web. And we're gonna keep track of how many times your particular contributions are used...and then we're gonna come up with a system to share some of the revenue."
Ase wasn't prepared to detail just how that would work, yet. So I asked him just how SiLo was planning to monetize their service. He starts by bringing up the differences between starting a tech company in the U.S., and in Canada.
"[Twitter] has been up for something like 5 years, and they still haven't really figured out a way to "monetize their system". But, because the support in the United States is there, people are like- we'll just stick with it and keep building a great product."
Canadian investors have a different attitude, so Deliri can't count on the same largess Twitter enjoys.
"...We're facing a different challenge. What we decided to do is...have sort of a blog coming on line, where we can have articles related to language...We're going to bring online more people who are interested in blogging about language. But they have to meet certain criteria, in terms of the level of content."
So blog advertising is one (somewhat tricky) revenue stream. What else? "On SiLo itself, we're going to have two banners on the side. And at the bottom there will be a 'Google Search' bar for travel, professional translators...so that's one service."
"That's really where we feel we can make the most difference in terms of monetization."