The universal translator arrives

One of the fun things about watching classic Star Trek TV shows back in the 1960s was marveling over the fantastic devices that were waiting for us in the 23rd century. The only problem is that just forty years later many, if not most of these devices have already arrived.

The communicator was a neat idea. It was wireless and able to be used over thousands of miles. However, we mastered the cell phone many years ago. In addition, where cell towers are not present you can use a satellite phone. The transporter may never dematerialize us and move us instantly to another place, but scientists have teleported photons and atoms without traveling through space. The phaser? We are not quite there, but we do have commercial laser pointers. Moreover, our Department of Homeland Security is worrying about whether these cheap devices, by shining them into pilots’ eyes from many miles away, could be used by terrorists to bring down airplanes. There is also the Taser, whose name I am sure was not coincidental. One version can deliver a shock remotely (using a wireless signal). Shuttlecraft? We got them already. While they cost hundreds of millions of dollars per flight, and require a rocket booster to get them into orbit, they are (mostly) reusable. Medical injections without puncturing the skin? Nicotine patches prove they can be done. Of course, there are all sorts of medicines you can take via inhalation or ingestion. Those fancy body-imaging machines Dr. McCoy used to use to diagnose patients? Got ’em. They are called MRIs. Scalpel-less surgery? We are already doing some of that. Had any colon polyps snipped recently? The Warp Drive engine still eludes us, as well as the whole Star Trek thing about faster than light travel that somehow eludes Einstein’s Theories of Relativity. Maybe someday we will get there.

The latest gee whiz “right out of Star Trek” gizmo is called MASTOR. MASTOR stands for Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator, and it is a product of IBM Research. When I heard about it yesterday on the BBC’s World Update broadcast, my interest was immediately piqued. You can think of it as a Star Trek universal translator.

Translation software is nothing new. Even if we seem to doggedly prefer our keyboards, Microsoft believes we will evolve. It built speech to text translation into its Windows Vista operating system. (It may need a bit more work.) We also have programs that translate text from one language to another automatically. While such software usually does a faithful job translating words, it can also kick out intensely strange and occasionally hilarious mistranslations when it attempts to translate expressions and colloquialisms. I used a few years ago when I sold a car to a Spanish couple. It seemed to be good enough and allowed us to sign an agreement of understanding even though my Spanish was rudimentary at best and their English was nonexistent. MASTOR is the next logical step. Make no mistake: MASTOR is a quantum leap in functionality because it can allow two people who speak two different languages to talk in real time with neither directly interacting with a computer. It is being field tested in Iraq right now as a means to allow our English-speaking soldiers to communicate with Iraqis, and visa versa. Reputedly, it is doing a decent job.

The software is installed on ruggedized laptop computers that soldiers can carry around with them. It is sensitive enough not just to translate spoken English into spoken Arabic, but into the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. IBM has been working to make the software work on small portable computers. In Star Trek, the universal translator was able to accurately translate any kind of speech, or in some cases thoughts in the form of energy. It was a neat gizmo to have and helped move the plot along at a brisk pace. While MASTOR is not as sophisticated as what was envisioned in Star Trek, it is easy to see MASTOR as version 0.1 of the universal translator. Presumably in time IBM will work out the kinks, and add translations for many more languages and dialects.

What is more exciting to me is where this should eventually lead. Computer storage continues to get cheaper. Memory continues to get denser and less expensive. Processors become more powerful and more energy efficient. The MP3 players that many of us carry around demonstrate just how much functionality can be squeezed into such a small space and yet have such modest power requirements. My MP3 player has 1GB of flash memory, plays, records, has an FM-radio and works on one AAA battery.

I can see the day, likely in my lifetime, when every international traveler will journey with a universal translator. Maybe it would just be a feature on our MP3 player. Instead of FM radio, we would engage its translation feature. On the other hand, perhaps it would be smart enough to detect foreign words and phrases and automatically speak them to us. Such a device would need a microphone that most players already have as well as a small speaker. Even if the translation were not perfect, it would be sufficient for your average tourist. When we travel this would make it unnecessary for many of us to have to learn the local language or purchase foreign phrase books.

I know that last year when my family visited France even though I had my daughter with me (a fourth year French student) I was a bit intimidated by the language, Fortunately, we stayed in tourist areas, so language barriers were rarely a problem. Admittedly, reading signs in foreign languages would be a problem. However, GPSes can get us from point to point in our favorite language, as well as always tell us where we are. Spoken word translation though is better. It predated the written word for good reason: it was universal. As long as there are people, a universal translator would be a convenient and natural way to navigate in foreign countries.

As a Washingtonian, I often feel that I need a universal translator right here where I live. The cultural diversity is such that you are about as likely to hear someone speaking a language other than English as English itself. Newt Gingrich wants to require that all Americans read and speak English. There may come a time when our universal translators become so fast and proficient that knowing more than one language will be unnecessary.

I hope the MASTOR succeeds in Iraq. Improved communications with Iraqi locals certainly could not hurt, and might reduce casualties. We sure could have used it when we invaded back in 2003, for we invaded with grossly insufficient translators for our needs. When MASTOR is finally available commercially at an affordable price, you will be seeing me using my passport a whole lot more often.

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