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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google's Universal Translator

Tech news sites have been buzzing about Google's plan to turn mobile phones into universal translators, based on a report in The Times.

Tech news sites have been buzzing about Google's plan to turn mobile phones into universal translators, based on a report in The Times.It's proof that those who cannot remember history are condemned to report it as news.

It isn't really news, however: Google said it was working on mobile translation technology in December at its Searchology event. The company said it aimed to provide in-conversation voice translation across languages, starting in the first quarter of 2010.

But that was two months ago, an eternity for attention spans tuned to Twitter. And The Times' story does include some interest observations from Franz Och, head of Google's translation services.

More interesting still is the comment posted under the name "David Crystal," who says he's the same honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University quoted -- or misquoted, as he claims -- in the story.

I didn't actually say what [Times writer Chris Gourlay] says I said. I said that there are two problems preventing successful automatic voice recognition, not one: regional accent diversity and speed of speech. I then gave examples of fast speech that would present a problem, and happened to mention Glaswegian in passing. But machines currently have great difficulty processing rapid speech, regardless of accent. So any sniping at Glaswegian misses the point. The issue affects all of us.

Nor did I say that the need to learn foreign languages is removed. I believe the need to learn languages will be stronger than ever, if and when such software becomes available, because there are all kinds of benefits which come from learning a foreign language. The point is being repeatedly affirmed in current research, and it's a pity the opportunity to reaffirm it wasn't taken up here.

Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that automated language translation will pass the point of being an amusing novelty soon, if it hasn't already.

And then what? Will fewer people bother learning foreign languages? Will our lives become even more mediated by machines? While I agree with Crystal's contention that there are real benefits to learning a foreign language, I fear it will be too easy not to do so if Google, or some other company, offers a shortcut that's good enough for the average traveler.

Perhaps even more troubling is the prospect of Google organizing all the world's conversations, in addition to all the world's information. How long until the data trail of translated conversations, not to mention plain old voice queries, draws the interest of law enforcement investigators and attorneys?

Machine translation no doubt will become increasingly capable and valuable in the coming decade. Let's hope it doesn't diminish opportunities for personal interaction or privacy.

InformationWeek has published a report on how telepresence is turning video communications into a near in-person experience. Download the report here (registration required).

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