Followers of Star Trek have always been intrigued by the concept of the Universal Translator, a device that enables people who speak different languages to understand each other as if in their own native tongue. This particular futuristic idea has always felt like the technology is centuries away, but according to Google, we’re a lot closer to achieving that goal than we think.
It turns out that Google is taking its vast amount of resources and experience to develop phone software that would turn our phones into our own Babel Fish. The Babel Fish was a device in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that, when placed in your ear, would translate any language around you. Could this technology give us the opportunity to converse over the phone with other people who don’t speak the same language as us? Imagine what kind of impact this would have on the global economy if we could do business with every single person on the planet!
Franz Och, Google’s head of Translation Services, recently mentioned in an interview to UK-based The Times that Google is working on the technology right now:
“We think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years’ time.
Clearly, for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition, and that’s what we’re working on.
If you look at the progress in machine translation and corresponding advances in voice recognition, there has been huge progress recently.”
Is that a lot to swallow for just a few years’ time? Are we that close to having our own personal Babel Fish?
Think about it this way: Google already has its Translate service, which is a service that translates anything you want and encompasses 52 different languages. It also has voice recognition technology embedded into Android and iPhone devices that allow the user to speak commands instead of typing them. All Google really has to do now is find an efficient way of combining the two types of tech into one nice piece of phone software.
The real challenge being faced right now is in the voice recognition software itself. Since everyone has different accents, different pitches and voices, it becomes quite difficult to develop a standard that would be effective for each and every person using the phone.
While it is hard to visualize this tech being perfect in the upcoming years, I would not be surprised to see some basic beta software showing up in time for Android version 6.0 (which will probably be codenamed Creamsicle or something), perhaps starting with just a couple different languages and building up over the years following.
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