UK technology trains of thought...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Universal Translation

Remember the universal translator in Star Trek? An unseen device that translates in real-time between two people who don't speak the same language. Enabling instant, seamless multilingual communication?

On Slashdot a story caught my attention about an open-source Yahoo IM proxy
- it isn't the first piece of software to integrate with Instant Messaging clients and translate, but it seems to be the first to use a proxy and automatically translate rather than wait for user interaction. This is important, in Star Trek one person is unable to hear the other language, they can only hear the translation... With an IM proxy you don't need to see the other language either.

Many offshore companies use IM to keep in touch with clients. If you advertise work to small development shops in India, they almost exclusively come with a raft of MSN, Yahoo, AIM and ICQ addresses. Perhaps this will bring IM to the forefront of remote customer service - particularly with internet-only businesses that don't want to have premises.

The main problem with this is that machine translation does not provide you with an accurate meaning, it gives you a good idea of the meaning - but not more than reasonably accurate. Various experts suggest 2012 - 2014 is a likely time for this to become a mature technology.

The other technical challenge is speech recognition. Microsoft is investing heavily in this area, as is IBM. Gates predicts that in 2011, automatic speech recognition will be as good as human speech recognition.

The final icing on the cake of course, is the fact that you can't hear the other language... hopefully this should be possible with the tech used in noise-cancelling headphones. In 8 years we could be walking around anywhere in the world, and experience everyone talking to us in perfect English. That's quite scary.

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