One of the enduring tropes in most science-fiction dealing in intergalactic travel is solving the communication problem. After all, space adventures are rendered much more perilous if the natives can’t understand you’ve come in peace. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had an organism called Babel Fish that burrowed into one’s ear and translated any given language by sending signals directly into the brain. Star Trek had a wearable device called the universal translator, which interpreted and translated alien languages into the user’s preferred tongue. In the series mythology, after it was deployed in real-time translation for all earthly languages, intercultural conflict on the planet came to an end, ushering in greater understanding. That’s quite a legacy for Microsoft’s beta of Skype Translate, a near real-time translation tool, to live up to — but this is the future the programme evokes.
Reportedly a decade in the making, the app builds on developments in a field of computer science called deep learning, which models the neural connections in the brain to mimic its behaviour. With more data, the machines can improve performance. This potentially resolves one of real-time translation’s knottiest problems — how to recognise speech accurately while simultaneously translating it. Soon, then, a Skype call could take place in dozens of different languages at the same time, with no need for human translators.
Of course, Skype Translate is very much a prototype as of now. But it is yet another example of how technological advances are imitating sci-fi and making it reality. Just a few days ago, for instance, Google unveiled its tiny electric car of the future, sans steering wheels, brakes — and drivers. Then there are the 3D printers, soon to be deployed to manufacture everything from guns to fruit (like a replicator from, yes, Trek) and augmented reality helmets and glasses. It’s a brave new world, and we’re living in it.