Connect the dots. How have the influences in your life shaped you?
As a kid, I once found some books stashed away in our attic, which my grandpa explained were religious, so they were censored by the state then. What stuck with me was that these arbitrary pages of paper were somehow so powerful that people were afraid of them. This was the start of my early fascination with books and my first realization: language could give ordinary people superhuman powers.
Despite loving my mother tongue, Uzbek, and the culture associated with it, I grew increasingly frustrated with having to resort to English when accessing information. During high school, I discovered that my curriculum was so outdated compared to what my peers study in the west, and I felt that universities would be no better. That led to my second realization, which was related to information access: people are heavily influenced by their information source, and that makes all the difference in their outcomes. I hated the idea of settling, which fueled my desire to study abroad.
Coming into college, I was on a mission to catch up with the world. By the end of my junior year, I ended up working in five different research labs and participated in dozens of hackathons. I felt invincible and mightily inspired by the body of knowledge that surrounded me. At that time, my understanding of how language empowered me was tied to the fact that I learned a second language which just happened to have a global monopoly on information. If I wasn’t equipped with an opportunity to do that, my outcome would have been very different.
See, I had already considered myself very lucky. I lived the first 18 years of my life in Uzbekistan, where having two educated parents gave me a huge early advantage. Most of my peers in middle school had to work in wheat fields over summers when I took extra courses in Math. So they had the odds stacked against them early on. The sad reality is that even if they had the chance to learn, there weren’t enough resources in Uzbek for them to do so. This was the turning point in my understanding of how information access had more to do with language barriers than information scarcity itself. Believing that one had to learn a new language just to have access to quality education suddenly seemed absurd in the wake of advanced technologies.
For months, this realization lingered in my head because I couldn’t imagine that learning a second language could be a viable path to global information accessibility. Yet, I knew no better alternative. That was until I came across the advances in the field of multilingual Natural Language Processing (NLP) while working as a research intern at IBM. New frontiers like Machine Translation (MT) offered the potential of transcending through language barriers, and this made me wonder whether language technologies could finally give any person — anywhere in the world speaking any language — a real chance to consume information, engage in science, and share expertise globally in their native tongues. This new hope transformed itself into activism for language technology accessibility. Early 2020, I decided to enroll in a Master’s program at USF and spent a year building a community dedicated to developing language technologies for Turkic languages, a severely understudied language group. Since then, the community, known as Turkic Interlingua, has grown to over 100 members spanning 10+ countries worldwide. Through collaborations with native speakers and local governments, we have built the largest public corpus for Machine Translation covering 22 Turkic languages and produced three peer-reviewed publications in prestigious conferences.
Looking back, connecting the dots in my life broadly had to do with three important realizations, each sharing one common thread: language. Looking forward, I imagine a more equal world that can offer opportunities for all citizens by breaking down language barriers through technology.