Universal Translator

My favorite future linguist technology is described in the novel Eon by Greg Bear. The story is set in a distant future in which some truly powerful technologies are available.  One of the characters needs to learn Russian. So naturally he takes a pill and -- poof! -- a short while later, he can speak, read, and write Russian like a native.

That kind of technology remains a few years out, at least. But my second favorite future linguistic technology is the Universal Translator from Star Trek. That machine works wonders, letting us always hear every conversation in English (and miraculously even see the speakers' lips moving as though they were speaking English!) Now that one we're actually closing in on:


Software Translates Your Voice into Another Language

Research software from Microsoft synthesizes speech in a foreign language, but in a voice that sounds like yours.

Researchers at Microsoft have made software that can learn the sound of your voice, and then use it to speak a language that you don't. The system could be used to make language tutoring software more personal, or to make tools for travelers.

In a demonstration at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus on Tuesday, Microsoft research scientist Frank Soong showed how his software could read out text in Spanish using the voice of his boss, Rick Rashid, who leads Microsoft's research efforts. In a second demonstration, Soong used his software to grant Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, the ability to speak Mandarin.

Follow the link for an impressive demonstration of this technology in action.

True universal translator capability will go a long way towards making one people out of all the people of this planet. Physical distance has always been one of the three great barriers separating people from one another, along with language and culture. Distance has been conquered and now we have language in our sites. Of course that third one is no small challenge, but eliminating distance and language as barriers presents the opportunity to create a new worldwide culture.

Douglas Adams took a more cynical approach in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describing the impact of his universal translator Babel Fish:
Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
One chuckles along cynically, but I don't think so. Universal translation will prove greatly beneficial to commerce, to entertainment, to so many areas. It will also, counter-intuitively, help to preserve the variety of languages that exist on the planet. For centuries we have been converging from many thousands of different languages and dialects to just a few. Nowadays we have English, Spanish, and Mandarin vying for all the marbles. But now that fight can end in an across-the-board tie. All languages can win.

The only real drawback I can think of  is related to a piece we did just a while back, noting the mental benefits that arise from learning a second language. In the future, actually "learning" another language will seem like an awful lot of trouble to go to. (Especially when the pills become available!) We'll have to find some other method of exercising our brains, I suppose.

That's okay. I'm sure there are plenty of possibilities.


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