Microsoft and Skype may have just invented the world’s first real universal translator

Universal translator

Universal translators are a common trope in science fiction. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, they come in the form of the babelfish, a tiny crustacean you jam in your ear. In Farscape, they are bacteria injected into your body. In Star Trek, they take a less squishy form as a wand or tiny computer pinned to your lapel.

In all incarnations, though, a universal communicator is seen as alien and futuristic. But Microsoft wants to change all that. The Washington-based company has just revealed a new real-time speech translation tool that is set to be built right into Skype, and which can translate any foreign language into English in the blink of an eye.

Currently in the early stages of development, the new tool is called Skype Translator. Microsoft’s Skype VP Gurdeep Singh Pal and communications manager Diana Heinrichs demoed the feature at the Code Conference. Using the tool’s live speech translations capabilities, Pall was able to have a conversation in English while Pal spoke German.

Here’s how Microsoft is explaining the new tool:

Skype Translator results from decades of work by the industry, years of work by our researchers, and now is being developed jointly by the Skype and Microsoft Translator teams. The demo showed near real-time audio translation from English to German and vice versa, combining Skype voice and IM technologies with Microsoft Translator, and neural network-based speech recognition. Skype Translator is a great example of why Microsoft invests in basic research. We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era.

Although Skype Translator only supports a few languages right now, it is well on its way towards release, with Microsoft promising a beta app released for Windows 8 by the end of the year. But imagine when this technology comes to Skype for iPhone, or better yet, got built into Siri! As a traveler currently typing these words overlooking a picturesque valley full of hot-air balloons sailing over Cappadocia, the possibilities of just pulling out your phone and talking with anyone make me giddy. The future of technology is the future of communication, and the future of communication is to be able to talk to anyone, no matter where they’re from.

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About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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