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It's good to talk

Many Indians prefer mobile phones to computer screens for accessing the internet, causing a huge sur

If you want to know just how much Indians love to talk, take a trip due south from the capital, New Delhi, to the nation's tip, where it meets the Indian Ocean. On the way, you'll encounter eight languages, not including English.

A passion for speech may be one reason why mobile phones are so popular in India, while broadband penetration remains low. It may also be a clue to why the country seems on its way to becoming a major global player in voice-based technologies.

“Voice is a huge market and there are lots of companies here doing it," says Yusuf Motiwala, who used to work for Texas Instruments in the US before founding TringMe in Bangalore in 2007. He and his partner Apul Nahata run a website that allows people to make calls between any telephone or speech application; plus, they've created an easy platform for developers to set up their own voice-enabled sites. The pair of young computer scientists work out of tiny offices - just a couple of small rooms above a house - yet they have attracted more than six million users worldwide, many of whom are in the US.

“People say that Silicon Valley is where it's really happening but Bangalore is happening, too," Nahata says. "People here have leapfrogged over other countries in the past ten years."

At IBM, which has had a presence in India for almost two decades, scientists are working on a groundbreaking audio-based internet project. "It's like a parallel web," says Manish Gupta, who heads the company's research laboratories in New Delhi.

His team has developed the Hyperspeech Transfer Protocol (HSTP), which links up audio in the same way as text is linked on web pages on the normal internet. On this "Spoken Web", you use an ordinary phone to navigate to addresses using numbered options, in the same way as you would with an automated helpline when you call your bank or electricity company.

With just 12 million broadband connections against over half a billion mobile-phone connections in India, it makes sense for IBM to be driving mobile-based internet applications. After successful trials in rural India, the Spoken Web is one of IBM's most important new projects; the firm has allocated $100m to mobile communications research over five years.

Speak easy

The idea also cashes in on how most Indians speak languages and dialects that aren't well represented online (English is the main language of almost two out of every five internet users, followed by Chinese) or how they may be too poorly educated to use the text-based internet - after all, adult literacy in India stands at only 74 per cent.

The need to develop voice-based technologies for the poor, illiterate and blind is another reason the Indian government is getting in on the trend. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, headquartered in Pune, recently announced a project to design an application that will allow people to give instructions to an internet browser in spoken Bengali, English, Hindi or Urdu and receive a spoken response from the machine.
It's a huge challenge in voice recognition - but then, as Gupta says, "Our whole civilisation is founded on this concept of the spoken word."

Angela Saini's "Geek Nation" is out now (Hodder, £20).

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India

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Ankara bombs: Turkey is being torn apart by bad leaders and bad neighbours

This is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed.

It had already been a deadly summer of political instability in Turkey. And now this. Another massacre – this time at the hand of twin bomb attacks on a peace rally in Ankara, which have killed at least 97 people.

It is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed. Barely a single day passes in Turkey without some incident of lethal political violence.

Freedom from fear is the very basic principle of human security, which should be protected by any state that wants a true sense of legitimacy over its population and territory. In Turkey, that freedom is under enormous pressure from all sorts of internal and external forces.

Stirred up

There are plenty of competing explanations for the political violence engulfing the country, but none can seriously overlook the impact of Turkey’s bad political leadership.

The terrible, violent summer reflects nothing so much as an elite’s greed for power and willingness to treat civilians as dispensable. This has become particularly apparent since Turkey’s inconclusive June 7 election, and the way various political parties and leaders did all they could to prevent the formation of a viable coalition government.

Ultimately, the power game is simple enough. At the elections hastily called for November, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party needs to garner only a few per cent more than it did in June to win the majority it needs for Erdogan to bolster his powers and make himself the country’s executive president.

To that end, pro-government media has been in overdrive throughout the summer, deliberately fuelling an environment of division, paranoia and mistrust in hopes of winning votes out of pure fear.

All the while, southeast Turkey has endured dreadful violence. Some towns – Cizre, for instance, which was under seige for days – have suddenly found themselves on the front line of renewed fighting between the security forces and the PKK.

The demise of the peace process is not just a failure of diplomacy – it signals that the armed conflict is still hugely politically and financially lucrative to Turkey’s political and military leaders. And the violence they’re profiting from is rapidly corroding social life and human security across the country.

The war next door

But the political instability caused by Turkey’s leaders has been greatly exacerbated by its neighbours, especially the continuing civil war in Syria and its deadly ramifications – an influx of jihadist fighters, a massive refugee crisis, and spiralling military interventions.

Since the end of the Cold War, global security has never been so seriously threatened as it is by today’s situation in Syria, which is now host to a head-to-head clash between the interests of Russia, the Assad regime and Iran on the one hand and the US, the EU, their Arab allies, and NATO on the other.

All sides claim to be fighting against the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists, but it’s clear that what’s really at stake is a lot more than just the fate of the jihadists or the political future of Syria. Already there’s an ominous spat underway over Russian planes' incursion into Turkish airspace; NATO has already raised the prospect of sending troops to Turkey as a defensive gesture.

And while it was always inevitable that the Syrian disaster would affect its northern neighbour to some degree, Turkey’s continuing internal political instability is proving something of an Achilles heel. By deliberately forcing their country into a period of chaotic and violent turmoil, Turkey’s leaders have made it more susceptible than ever to the Syrian conflict and the mighty geopolitical currents swirling around it.

And yet they press on with their cynical political ploys – seemingly unmoved by the cost to their people, and unaware that they could just be becoming pawns in a much bigger game.

The Conversation

Alpaslan Ozerdem is a Chair in Peace-Building and Co-Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.