Microsoft creates universal translator, close to releasing it to public

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Microsoft is close to releasing the real-world equivalent of Star Trek’s Universal Translator, where you’ll be able to speak to someone and...

Microsoft is close to releasing the real-world equivalent of Star Trek’s Universal Translator, where you’ll be able to speak to someone and have it translated immediately into another language.

By Karn G. Bulsuk

Microsoft and Skype appear to be going where no one has gone before: they've recently unveiled a universal translator, capable of performing live translation of spoken speech. This exciting technology takes a page out of Star Trek technology, in which a universal translator allows instant communication between alien races, and is slated to be rolled out with Skype in the coming months.

A recent demo by Microsoft showed the system conducting simultaneous translation from English to German, using the speaker’s own voice. The speed is impressive, and it appears that the accuracy is quite good as well.



While a tech demo was demonstrated in 2012 translating from English to Mandarin, this will actually be rolled out to consumers as Skype Translate as a Windows 8 app, showing the level of confidence that Microsoft has in its technology.

While the sample translation does suffer from errors typical of machine translations as well as a slightly robotic voice, it is remarkable how far we’ve come compared to 10 years ago when such translations were more of a comical novelty rather than to be taken seriously.

When the technology becomes increasingly accurate, the benefits will be profound. When it reaches a point where people can generally rely on it to do interpretation, language barriers to doing business will quickly crumble and business people will be able to go to any country, or pick up the phone at any time and have detailed discussions with their foreign counterparts without waiting (and paying) for an interpreter. Tourists and tourism will too benefit: there are people still out there who avoid travel because they can't speak the local lingo.

It may bring an end to the era of the professional translator though, with language study being related to a hobby rather than a profession. The entire industry of language schools, diplomas, degrees and teachers will no longer be required in an era of automated and simultaneous interpretation, a victim of technological advancement.

Given the laughable nature of many Google Translate translations, it'll probably take a long time, if ever, before a computer can perform interpretation as well as a live human: computers have never been good at picking up on cultural nuances and subtle aspects such as sarcasm and emotion, and making sure the context is accurately translated. The computer may make it easier to have a conversation about facts and figures, but it will be a long time, if ever, before computers will be able to replace the human touch.

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: Microsoft creates universal translator, close to releasing it to public
Microsoft creates universal translator, close to releasing it to public
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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