A Real-Life Babelfish?

In the first novel of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams describes a tiny creature able to facilitate simultaneous communication between speakers of different languages:

 “The Babel fish is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe…if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”

An animal (or device) that interprets language both flawlessly and simultaneously, feeding it directly into in the ears of the speaker may seem farfetched. However, advances in voice-recognition software and machine-translation have caused some to suggest that not only linguistic and cultural barriers, but also the barrier between science fiction and reality, will be brought down in the near future. Indeed, January 2016 saw the release of Skype Translator. This application is capable, not only of instantly translating text in over 40 different languages, but also incorporates a feature that translates users’ speech in real time. Similarly, Google’s in-app translation feature allows users of instant-messaging apps to have their conversations translated instantly.

Now, Waverly Labs, a US-based firm, claims to be going one step further. It is developing a piece of technology called “Pilot” that instantly translates the language of speakers of different languages. However, unlike Skype’s service, this device is to facilitate real-life face to face communication. “Pilot” consists of two earpieces linked to a smartphone app to which languages may be downloaded. Waverly Labs claim that this will allow pairs of users to speak in one language and be understood in another, thus facilitating spontaneous conversation between two speakers of different languages. Although Waverly Labs originally intended to release the device in the third Quarter of 2016, but this has been pushed back to 2017.

Although this may seem revolutionary, Waverly labs has not revealed many details of the technology behind the device. The exact capabilities of Pilot therefore remain unclear. It seems likely that it will face the same limitations as any other device reliant on a machine translation engine. Indeed, whilst the relative effectiveness and accuracy of Skype’s translation app in translating has gained praise, it nevertheless struggles with issues of ambiguity and choosing terms that are appropriate to the context of their use. In addition, problems may be caused by idiosyncratic accents and rhythms of speech. Nevertheless, even if it is a work in progress, the possibility of a real-life Babelfish translating basic phrases remains exciting. In any case, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states:

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication … has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Perhaps it is fortunate that a fully-functioning real-life Babelfish may not be with us anytime soon.

Sources: TechnologyReview, Skype, BusinessInsider, IBTimes, IBTimes and Wareable

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