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From the printing press to the smartphone, mankind has made numerous revolutions in communication. Is real-time translation the next step? Our smartphones are already capable of running augmented reality apps like Word Lens, so what is the future of this real-time translation technology? And could these applications save languages from going extinct?
What use can you imagine for real-time translation devices? Let us know in the comments below!
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Every two weeks, another language goes extinct. Could translation devices save them?
One thing we have to understand about communication is that messages don’t really travel, they code. Take a look at this model. First, you have to encode the message – like in a language. And then it has to travel through some channel – such as the airwaves. Then it has to be received and then decoded. That means there’s a lot of places where communication can get a little mucked up.
Now I wonder if our progress has allowed us to communicate more effectively. After all, since the printing press we’ve gone all the way to the smartphone, with lots of communication revolutions along the way. So, what’s next?
Well what about translation devices that allow people to communicate across language barriers. Here’s how it would work. You’re in a foreign country and you want to greet a local. You speak into a device, like a mobile phone, and speech recognition software digitizes the sound and uses statistical algorithms to guess what was said. The algorithm also takes context into account, so that the relationship of words affects the computer’s guess. During the translation phase, an algorithm compares your words and phrases to troves of translated documents and webpages from the local language and makes another guess at the translation. It then uses a library of speech sounds to produce your sentence in the local language.
Real-time translation already exists for your personal device. For example, Word Lens is an app that has optical word recognition software. And Google is working on prototypes of hardware that can do real-time translation in controlled environments. And the giant telecom NTT DoCoMo has created augmented reality glasses that can take words on signs and menus, and translate them in near real-time.
Now real-time translation wouldn’t just be useful when you’re in Bora Bora and need to ask someone the way to the bathroom. Preserving linguistic differences can benefit us in lots of ways. For example, we can learn what aspects of language are universal, as opposed to peculiar to a specific language. But there are some incredible similarities between human language, and the languages of dolphins and whales. Now this suggests that there are some elements of language that are universal across species. So the question is – is this just restricted to Earth’s species?
Well, maybe in the future we’ll have access to something like the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a little fish that you would shove into your auditory canal and it would actually excrete translated alien languages directly into your brain.
But whether it’s communicating with aliens or animals or humans, there are some things that are always gonna be lost in translation. Now here we’re talking about noise. Not just literal noise, which can interfere with communication, but psychological factors, like assumptions that we make about a person based upon their life experiences right when we get into a conversation, that can impede real communication.
There are so many different ways communication can go haywire, frankly I’m surprised we ever managed to communicate in the first place. And some things are impossible to communicate. For example, the feeling you get when you listen to Mozart, or when you wake up from a bad dream, or how it feels to fall in love. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.