Communication -- Breaking Down the Barriers

Traditionally, there are three great barriers to global communication: distance, language, and understanding.* The story of technological progress is the story of the dismantling distance as a barrier. The progress was slower at first, primarily involving incremental improvements to shipbuilding, but it really took off with the introduction of the telegraph. Then came the telephone, e-mail, Skype, Facebook, etc.

In short: distance has been all but conquered.

The next barrier is language. It need not be that significant a barrier as long as one party is willing to take the months or years required to master a new language or as long as you can find someone to intermediate between you. And now we're closing in on technology provides a third alternative:
An app offering real-time translations is to allow people in Japan to speak to foreigners over the phone with both parties using their native tongue.   
NTT Docomo – the country’s biggest mobile network – will initially convert Japanese to English, Mandarin and Korean, with other languages to follow. 
It is the latest in a series of telephone conversation translators to launch in recent months. Lexifone and Vocre have developed other products. 
Alacatel-Lucent and Microsoft are among those working on other solutions.
With this app, people who speak two different languages can engage in a near-real-time  conversation via phone -- and get a text readout to boot. If the "near" part of near-real-time seems worrisome, we should keep in mind that at one time long-distance phone calls often involved a delay (and Skype calls still do sometimes.) Later generations of this technology should take care of that problem.

In any case, the difference in time between those few seconds and the period of time it takes to learn a language is immense. And the availability of a tireless translation agent available 24/7 has huge advantages over the alternative of engaging a human interpreter.

If this technology doesn't eliminate language as a barrier it certainly takes it down a peg or two.

That leaves understanding: the one barrier to communication we all face even when distance and language are not an issue. For now there is no technology on the horizon to help us with that. We'll have to keep working on it ourselves.

* A fourth would be government / bureaucracy, which often creates unneeded barriers between parties who want to communicate.


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