Google’s instant translation devices could turn science fiction into reality

Hugo Barra holds the new Nexus 7 tablet during a Google event in San Francisco, California, July 24, 2013.I always dreamed of learning all the languages and traveling the world without being bothered by communication barriers. This might not be a far-fetched idea after all and, what is more, it might not require years of intensive study.

Google is working on prototype devices, which, hooked up to your phone, would enable you to receive real-time translations from a foreign language speaker.

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Many have likened this latest development to Douglas Adams’s prophetic Babel Fish, an animal in his 1979 comic sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, able to perform instant translation.

Far from fiction, the device is part of a bigger Google Now project, which seeks to answer the customers’ every need by anticipating their requests.

While in theory the idea means it could revolutionize the world of communications and become a sort of ‘universal tongue’ challenging the meanings of ‘learning’ and ‘knowing’, polyglots and language teachers won’t go unemployed tomorrow.

At a time when even textual translations is iffy, verbal translations seem even more challenging. Speech recognition remains an obstacle, which means it might work for the jargony language of diplomacy, but might be harder in colloquial contexts, with the slangs, accents and even background noises involved.

Hugo Barra, vice-president of Android, recognized that the devices were at their early stages. But the technology is developing fast, however, and Google has spent the last couple of years improving on those translation obstacles.

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The team of engineers and programmers analyzing sound patterns through voice recognition algorithms are likely to defy the laws of what was once lost in translation, by developing a device that understands exactly what you mean rather than what you say.

There’s a creepy element to all of this, for this means that all the data processed will also be stored, somewhere, raising further questions about the uses of this artificial intelligence.

 

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