Science fiction becoming reality

Microsoft has recently started the preview program for Skype Translator, which allows English and Spanish speakers to converse in their native languages. I find that a wonderful use of technology.
Much like the Universal Translator used in Star Trek, Skype’s system uses speech recognition and intelligent translation technology, which, thanks to its machine-learning, gets smarter the more it is used.

Automatically translating spoken words into both audio and text for real-time voice-to-voice conversation is proof that science-fiction is once again influencing the world in positive ways. What I find most interesting and amazing is that these systems are learning languages statistically, due entirely to the amount of data which can be found on the internet.

For example, Google Translate works by finding documents that exist in multiple languages and learning from the patterns within the phraseology. This really does show the power of these huge computer systems and how the amount of data the internet provides can drive change.

The idea of a machine that can break down language barriers is a wonderful concept, yet it is the issue of context which could be problematic.

A human interpreter has to understand a number of words which have several different meanings. For example, ‘ladder’ could be something that is used to get to a higher level, or a snag in a pair of tights. That’s a very simple example, but imagine how tricky it can be with diplomatic or technical interpretation!

Simultaneous interpretation relies on the interpreter understanding the context and intent of the spoken source material used while rearranging the sentences to convey the same meaning in the target language.

When it comes to the events industry, there are some multi-lingual conferences where interpreters work to translate the content into foreign languages, but in the short term these aren’t likely to be the target of this technology, because of their sensitivity.

For smaller events or conferences where people want to attend, but don’t speak the event language very well (or even at all), technology like Skype Translator could be a real winner. Additionally, the ability to have a face-to-face, voice-to voice conversation with an international associate could greatly improve communication in business meetings.

It is important to remember that these kinds of advances don’t happen all of a sudden. There is almost never a ‘new technology’ which revolutionises the world. In 2007, the iPhone appeared, but was built on advances in screen technology, processors, battery life, storage and many other elements being at a point in their development where they could be brought together to make a ‘new thing’.

Machine translation research has been ongoing for decades, with Microsoft itself starting its own research 15 years ago - first with text-based translation and later with voice recognition and dictation technologies. But it’s also necessary for processors and software to be powerful enough to interpret speech and the internet to be fast enough to transmit and receive the audio.

Will machine translators replace their human counterparts? That remains to be seen in the long run, but technology has a habit of surprising us. In the short to medium term I think human and machine translation can work together really well. The technology can first translate the text, which takes all of the donkey work out of it, then the human can refine the language and check the context.

Yes, technology is advancing and progressing, and, yes, science-fiction is influencing the world time and again, but even Star Trek’s Universal Translator needed Hoshi Sato…