Do you remember watching Star Trek? Wasn’t it amazing that all the crew members could understand each other and communicate regardless of which country or even planet they came from? This was possible because they had this little universal translator built into the communicator.
Science Fiction you say? Well, they said this about the communicator before Martin Cooper turned the idea into the mobile phone. And now it seems as if Google is building the universal translator device. Beam me up, Scotty.
Now it is working on combining the two technologies [automatic system for translating text and voice recognition system] to produce software capable of understanding a caller’s voice and translating it into a synthetic equivalent in a foreign language. Like a professional human interpreter, the phone would analyse “packages” of speech, listening to the speaker until it understands the full meaning of words and phrases, before attempting translation.
This of course will have a big impact on language learning so I was quite suprised that I got this story over Myngle’s Twitter account. They also wrote a rather positive review about this on the Myngle blog. I am suprised because the most annoying VC question these days is “What if Google decides to come on your market?”. And I think there is some evidence that Google is planning to get a foot into the language learning market.
However, some experts believe the hurdles to live translation remain high. [...] “The problem with speech recognition is the variability in accents. No system at the moment can handle that properly.”
“The future, though, looks very interesting. If you have a Babel Fish, the need to learn foreign languages is removed.”
Now, what will happen if Google is offering a working device? Hard to say from today’s point of view but if you look back on how the way we communicate has changed since the first mobile phone a lot could happen.
I mean the most obvious change was that the thesis “Why would I need a mobile phone? I don’t need to be available all the time.” because today we are not only available all the time we also start to share where we are, what we do, what we bought, where we plan to go etc with the world. So the mobile phone not only changed the way how people connect with us, it changed the mindset of a whole generation. It’s too early to say if this is good or bad, of course but it’s a fact for sure.
So again, what might happen with a mobile device that let’s you talk with people no matter what language they speak. You can get a little taste of this on BabelWith.Me. This is an online chat that translates your messages instantly from your language into the language of your chat partner and vice versa. And guess who powers this translating function? Yes, Google of course.
“The more data we input, the better the quality,” said Och. There is no shortage of help. “There are a lot of language enthusiasts out there,” he said.
As you can see, if you try it out, the quality of the translation is far from being perfect but it is already very good for “mainstream” languages like European ones. Most importantly, it is already much better than not being able to communicate at all.
Now if we take all this and bring it to a point where we assume that the software is getting smarter, the calculating capacity is getting bigger we could imagine a working device within the next 5 years. It would work on a B1/B2 level so basically covering the conversations we do every day. Tourists would use it on their travels and business people during their conferences and talks cutting off two of the biggest reasons to learn a language today.
I got three words for you: dinosaurs, climate change.