Welcome to the future: The Babel fish lives (in electronic form)

Welcome to the Future is SeedSing's look at trends and technology that are shaping the world we will live in. Submit ideas of interesting sociological or scientific ideas that are altering our current lives to seedsing.rdk@gmail.com .

Ever since I heard of the babel fish in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the universal translator used in the Star Trek series, I have been thrilled with the concept. As someone who is interested in the perspectives of as many people as possible, the idea that I could communicate with anyone no matter where they are from or what linguistic background they had was very compelling.

I remember when I first became aware of Google Translate. The first thing I did was find various Spanish or German chat rooms on IRC and tried to talk to people by translating my English into their language and then translating the response back manually. As cumbersome as this was, it also gave me a feeling of exhilaration.

Playing around with translate on the internet is fun and all, but it has become a useful tool in meat world too. Last year when my partner and I went to Mexico I used it quite a lot. Not only was translate helpful, but Google Now recognized that I was in Mexico and knowing that I was natively from the US gave me an easily accessible currency conversion without my having to do anything except enter the numbers. The way technology does things like this without me even having to think about it is tearing down international borders and I am overjoyed to see it.

We still have a long way to go before we will have babel fish or Star Trek level universal translation, but the space is progressing nicely. Coupled with voice transcription technologies, we are starting to see near real time language translation. Earlier this year the Google Translate app began to have a feature which takes what a person says in one language, transcribes it to text, translates it, and says the words aloud in the target language. From what I have heard the feature is still pretty error prone, but it will only get better over time. Another feature that came with that same update is the ability to hold the camera up to some text and get a translation of that text overlaid on the camera’s image on screen. It even does a pretty decent job of matching color and font on the translated image.

Microsoft, who owns Skype, is also making huge headway in the universal translation space. Skype users can now connect with people translating between English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish in near real time. Google is reportedly working on similar technology for its Hangouts service.

Language barriers are definitely being broken and this is amazing. The more that people of different backgrounds can understand each other, the more compassionate we will all be toward each other. It surely is not the pervading solution to violence and hate in the world, but it will at least be helpful in the reduction of it.

Kirk Aug

Kirk is able to communicate with his SeedSing colleagues. The problem is he is seeking more insightful conversation, and that conversation may be in another language. Talk to Kirk by following him on twitter @kirkaug.