1992 / 3月
Wei Hung-chin /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Uses for the computer are growing more numerous by the day as it becomes an ever more powerful machine. Yet what, besides greater convenience, can the computer give us?
Chu Bong Foo, the creator of the Chinese character entry system Chengi, answers--it can enhance Chinese culture.
Once again computer whiz Chu Bong Foo has taken people by surprise.
Just ten years ago research into computer "artificial intelligence" was being abandoned as computer researchers around the world were stymied in getting computers to understand models of human thought. Now Chu, who holds boundless enthusiasm for Chinese-language computers, has declared that he has designed "an intelligent Chinese computer" that "can think, learn skills and communicate directly with people using language." The first stages of its development have already been completed successfully, and it is expected to be formally unveiled within two years.
"In time everyone will have one, and they'll be able to keep old folks company and relieve boredom, teach children how to read and make the most logical arrangements for people's lives," says Chu, describing the beautiful future ahead of his Understanding System. "At that time there won't be any of this conflict between so-called 'democracy' and 'communism,'" he says, growing more enraptured with its wonder at every moment of reflection.
The Worldwide Fame of Chengi: Establishing himself in the computer world with Chengi over ten years ago, Chu, who originally studied agriculture, has completely invested his energies in Chinese-language computer research. What he has come up with in these years can hold 60,000 Chinese characters and can make use of programs to create another 6 million characters. The numbers of transformations to the size and shape of the characters are enormous, but it only takes up 256,000 bytes of memory for a "comprehensive bank of Chinese characters." It combines into an integrated system with seven independent sets of software for graphics, tables, computer typesetting, word processing, windows, communications interface, and a data bank--technology unsurpassed anywhere.
Because his achievements are so remarkable in the Chinese computer field, when he announced the success of his research into a "Chinese intelligent computer," some were inclined to half believe him while others were downright incredulous. Stan Shih, president of the computer company Acer, who worked with Chu on the Chinese computer Dragon, is representative of the former group. Respecting Chu's intelligence, he thought that it was quite possible. But Li Ming-feng, editor-in-chief of Information and Computer Magazine, makes no bones in saying, "Even if Chu Bong Foo can really make something, it has yet to be of any practical use." As usual, such praise and criticism means nothing to Chu. "They say what they may, and I do what I do," says Chu suavely.
In fact, this is not the first time that Chu, who is 56 this year, has made waves in the computer world.
"Chinese Computers" Rule the World? With a burst of passion, Chu Bong Foo threw himself into researching the computerization of the Chinese written language while struggling against the era's westward-pulling tide. After inventing Chengi, he worked with Acer to develop Dragon, the first computer to have been completely designed by Chinese themselves, shattering the myth that it was impossible to computerize the Chinese language.
Although he had acquired the title of "father of the Chinese computer," he was not satisfied with merely the word processing of the Chengi and Dragon. He was determined to combine "the Chinese language" with "the computer." "Of all the world's languages, only the structure of Chinese can be completely understood by the computer," Chu boasts. "Hence, Chinese is the future of world computerization. No one can stop this trend."
Why would a computer worker (which is how Chu Bong Foo describes himself) pick structurally complex Chinese as the subject of his computer research? His thinking was "Chinese culture is the greatest culture in the world, and its essence is Chinese characters."
Even if entering Chinese is not as convenient as entering phonetic-based scripts like English and Japanese--which results in language being less broadly computerized here than in the advanced countries of Europe and America--Chu has unwavering faith in the Chinese written language. He believes that the phonetic-based scripts of the West lack a "conceptual" basis: everything has a unique word for it. With progress the number of words has exploded.
Turning the Tide for Chinese Culture: "Chinese characters are altogether different. Take, for example, the word for 'vehicle.' You can add various characters in front of it to distinguish different kind of vehicles, such as 'fire vehicle' (train) or gas vehicle (car) . . . . You can add various characters after it to show the various manifestations of its structure, such as 'vehicle handle' (handlebar) or vehicle body . . . . With these combinations, one knows something is vehicular as soon as one sees the character," says Chu, describing his understanding of Chinese characters. "In English, a truck is a truck and a car a car . . . . Each vehicle has its single word, and there's no conceptual structure to speak of."
Chu Bong Foo holds that Chinese holds a superiority in being accepted and understood by computers. Hence, Chinese is the way of the future for artificial intelligence in computers, and there will be no way to avoid using Chinese for thought and creation. "Chinese will by necessity be exalted and spread so that it becomes the mainstream of world culture," he says full of confidence.
Chu's selection of Chinese computers as his life work is a result of many "accidents" leading to the "inevitable" result.
Chu was born to a family of influence. His father Chu Huai-ping served as governor of Hupei Province on the mainland and as the secretary-general of the Planning Commission for the Recovery of Mainland China after the government came to Taiwan.
Growing up in such a privileged environment, Chu Bong Foo had a chance to lead a comfortable life of smooth advancement. But because he is rebellious by nature and was always at odds with his father, he went abroad and was without accomplishment well into his thirties.
After Drifting, an Epiphany: "I was asking myself everyday, 'what does life mean?'" recalls Chu Bong Foo of those days of drifting.
He tried every kind of lifestyle while constantly reflecting upon his experiences. He was for a time both a smuggler and a hippie. When he was living as a hippie in Brazil, he came to a profound and complete understanding of "the real meaning of life" because of a failure in his love life." Investigating Chinese culture with his hippie friends, he came to deeply admire the culture of his motherland, crying foul at the lack of attention it had been receiving. It was thus he decided upon his own life work -- enhancing Chinese culture.
At that time, he still lacked a conception of what concrete measures could be taken. It wasn't until he went to work for a publishing house in Brazil and saw for himself how quickly Roman script could be handled that he found his direction. He resolved to computerize Chinese characters so that knowledge could be more quickly conveyed.
In 1973, Chu Bong Foo was 36, and he returned home to throw himself wholeheartedly into research about the computerization of Chinese.
Struggling to Put Forward Chengi: In researching and entering Chinese into a computer, Chu selected the crudest of methods--and the dumbest of ones for analyzing the complexity of Chinese characters. He bought dozens of Chinese dictionaries, cut each word out, compiled them on cards, and then took the characters apart, analyzed them and regrouped them. After six years of research, he used a standard English keyboard to make his basic Chinese keyboard, which was divided into 24 components of Chinese characters. With an additional 72 supplementary character shapes, he had successfully created the "Chinese character shape and meaning entry system," whose name was changed to Chengi by Wego Chiang. Someone familiar with the system can type 60 words a minute. A contest winner set a system record of 130 words a minute. In comparison, 40 to 50 is about the average for a phonetic system, and Chengi has become the darling of computer professionals. Li Shu-huei, who makes a living using computers, says, "There are too many Chinese characters with the same pronunciation. Using a pronunciation based system, you have to wait for the screen to be cleared of character -- it's more trouble than it's worth. With Chengi, if you select the code properly, the character will appear instantaneously. It really gives you confidence." In order to simplify the selection of character components, Chu is incessantly revising it, and it is already in its fifth version.
While Chu Bong Foo has become famous as a result of Chengi, he has not become rich. Because he is inherently against commercialism and going after the big bucks, he has never applied for a patent on his invention and has completely allowed it to be openly used by everyone. Hence, in spite of his great talent, Chu is still "without a car, house or savings and deeply in debt." He is fond of saying, "Getting by is good enough" or "Do you want to make a lot of money so you can put it in your coffin?"
Wanting a Computer to Speak! While he feels it's unfortunate that most people approach computerization without emphasizing culture, he is deeply pained that some people use the computer for organizing lottery stubs. "Using the computer to make money or to calculate bills is completely misusing it," he says angrily.
Chu is carrying out his research on the Understanding System with little funding and a lot of debt.
Because he decided that computers ought to be like the red-eyed HAL of the movie 2001, which can talk to humans, communicate, think, understand and learn, Chu has been working for over ten years in the hope of inventing a similarly intelligent Chinese computer.
In this research, he has extended his efforts to break down Chinese characters. He has made advancements in analyzing the meaning of 8,000 frequently used Chinese characters and in the sorting out and grouping of their types. Moreover, he has established a phrase bank to enable the computer to accept and understand the way Chinese is used and thought.
Analysis of Chinese phrases is enormously time-consuming. Yet with his passion and perseverance, Chu is already nearing completion of his "stupid work." What remains is figuring out computer applications for the results of this research. "Eighty percent of the work for his Understanding System is completed when approaching this stage. What remains is to match it with appropriate software, and then the computer can do whatever it wants."
"Major American and Japanese computer companies like IBM and NEC are all very interested in the Understanding System and are anxiously awaiting the results," Chu reveals.
No Interest in Money: With values so far from the norm, Chu Bong Foo is bound to cause headaches for his partners. Stan Shih, the chairman of Acer who once worked with Chu developing Dragon 1.0, says, "Chu Bong Foo is an extremely intelligent person, but he often does things against the advice of others and the principles of the marketplace. In so doing, he hurts himself and maybe also the computer industry."
Shih holds that Chu's antipathy for money is simply a character trait, but by making things that do not meet market demands or do not bring return on investment, he makes it difficult for research to continue.
Although most people look askance on his 14 years of effort to develop a Chinese computer, the belief and passion with which Chu throws himself into his work has attracted a group of "Chu disciples." Shen Hung-lien, a graduate of National Taiwan University in Chinese literature, is one such devotee.
Master and Disciples: Shen originally worked for the Tachou Construction Co., which once assisted Chu in researching the Chinese entry method. Her main work was helping Chu handle data. At first she regarded her duties as just a "job," but after being deeply moved by Chu's infectious enthusiasm for his work, she became a faithful follower and has been working with him for 14 years already.
"Chu is full of ideals, but he often does things half way. I act as an opposition faction to encourage him to finish what he starts." She often plays devil's advocate to prod Chu to action.
Three years ago, after having travelled through many countries in search of the meaning of life, Wolter Van Paten, with a degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley, now 28, met Chu, who was researching computers in Shenzhen on the mainland. After they talked, he too decided to follow Chu and together weave a computer dream.
Feng Chia-chi, who graduated several years ago from the electronics department of Hua Hsia Junior College of Technology, takes no salary for his research with Chu. "If I wanted to make a name or money," he says frankly, "I wouldn't be here."
"Mad Chu," the oddball of high tech whose research methods are completely unconventional, is often considered a heretic. History has yet to make an objective assessment of his accomplishments, but at the very least "he has become an excellent alternative teaching resource," says Hsu Jui-ching, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at National Taiwan University. If every road leads to Rome, Chu Bong Foo's "dumb way" is still a way. Maybe we should look at him in this way.
(Right): Chu Bong Foo (seated in the middle) spends his days with his head buried in computer research, working with a group of young friends who care for neither fortune nor fame.
(Above left): Chu Bong Foo toiled for six years to develop Chengi.
(Below left): Taking a breather from the dry rigors of work, he has fashioned a miniature bicycle out of wire.
In designing Understanding System, Chu Bong Foo began by analyzing the meaning of Chinese characters. (photo by Arthur Cheng)
Shen Hung-lien (left) is Chu Bong Foo's right-hand woman. (photo by Arthur Cheng)
Chu Bong Foo is the lonely and proud monarch of the computer kingdom. (photo by Arthur Cheng)
In addition to researching computers, Chu Bong Foo also enjoys his discussions with the young. He has views about everything.
The Buddha on the desk is a repository for Chu's spiritual energy. (photo by Arthur Cheng)
Chu Bong Foo is concerned about the future of Chinese culture.