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.