Skype’s new service is like a Star Trek universal translator for the real world

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Even school kids can see the potential. Photo: Skype/Microsoft
Even school kids can see the potential. Photo: Skype/Microsoft

Star Trek Captains Picard and Kirk could talk to any alien, no matter how different it was from humanity, thanks to the universal translator, a magical sci-fi device that explained away why strange civilizations in far-away solar systems all spoke English.

That future just got a little less far-fetched, thanks to Skype Translator, a new preview service that uses technology from Microsoft Research to translate two different languages back and forth in real time.

This is heady stuff, as school kids in Seattle and Mexico City seem to instantly recognize when they chat back and forth in English and Spanish via the Skype service in the video below.

Text translation has been around for a while, with Google and Microsoft offering services that will translate between any number of languages (Google Translate shows 89 of them on its Translate page). But this is the first real-world speech-translation system that works in real time (a crowd-funded project called SIGMO failed to get off the ground last year).

Being able to talk to other people in your native language while they hear their own spoken tongue relies on some deep neural networks, according to Microsoft Research. Machine learning means it gets better as more people use the service.

The new Skype Translator is available to anyone using Windows 8.1 who has signed up for the preview, which only includes English and Spanish at the moment, with more than 40 languages available via instant message.

Via: GigaOM

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  • Mark Langston

    I see both good and bad in this technology.

    On the one hand we may soon never need to have a different division within a call center meant to handle Spanish speaking customers. The caller will still press ‘2’ for Spanish but now anyone in the call center can handle the caller.

    But what I don’t like is that it’s yet another sign of the machines taking over for things humans once did on their own. We say we fear the rise of the machine and yet we continue empowering it.

    The rude awakening for me was when I saw an app that helped you remember your parking space. So let me get this straight: we don’t have to remember phone numbers, the weather report from the morning news, our credit card number or use a traditional folded map to find our way around town. With all the stuff technology’s doing for us we should have more storage in our own brains for something.

    Now we’ve suddenly come up with an excuse to not learn a new language. Rather than focus on giving more power to computers we need to remain committed to advancing humanity or we’ll cease to have relevance on the planet.

    Just sayin’.

    • Pedant

      Ahem. Mark:
      “yet we continue to empowering it”
      “With all the stuff technology’s doing”
      “We’re moving all need for human excellence and advancement.”

      Please, tell us more about this ‘excellence’ of which you speak…..

      • Mark Langston

        Thank you technology for the “edit” button. I have no idea what I was attempting to say in that sentence but I fixed it (I’m usually good about proof-reading my posts before I hit submit but I flubbed that one pretty good).

        As for “technology’s”, that’s accurate. The context of the sentence is “…with all the stuff technology is doing…”. In that context I’m using the possessive state of technology versus using the word “technologies”. Example: My family’s going on vacation. Not “My families going on vacation”.

        I appreciate the correction but not the fact that you ignored the entire point of my post focusing rather on a few grammatical errors than the inevitable reality of technology taking more and more power away from us feeble humans.