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Babel Fish Out, TeleLanguage In!

April 16, 2009 | Chris Payatagool

star_trek.jpgBy Sagee Ben-Zedeff

I guess you can't really write a blog about technology without some references to popular science fiction, and as no science fiction title is more popular than Star Trek, I've previously discussed here the "enterprise edition" of teleportation and the holodeck.

But from the vast repertoire of technologies that science fiction (and Star Trek) offered us along the years, none has been as seductive - to me, at least - as the universal translator. This fictional device, first described in Leinster's "First Contact" (in 1945), offers instant translation from any language to any language.

While a real universal translator seems unlikely, advances in machine translation technology offer impressive translation capabilities between many languages. Popular services like Alta Vista's Babel Fish (now owned by Yahoo!), powered by SYSTRAN, or Google Translate, do not provide fully automatic high-quality machine translation, but produce reasonable output.

Babel Fish Here, Babel Fish There

As the Internet becomes oh-so popular, and the world is just a very well connected global village, the ability to read and write in other languages becomes a priceless service. I often find myself reading a web page in German or Chinese, based on a machine translation, and while the result isn't perfect, in many cases I understand the content fully.

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" the universal translator was known as the Babel Fish. In a post I've written a few months ago, I called the video conferencing bridge, the MCU, the Babel Fish of visual communication. In a way, this was not a coincidence. Video conferencing is all about communicating across physical boundaries, and if language is such a boundary, why not cross it using visual communication?

Apparently, the good people at Cisco are also science fiction fans. In an analyst conference in October Cisco's CEO, John Chambers, demonstrated an experimental feature over a Telepresence video conference - simultaneous translation. Chambers was talking to Mauricio Cruz, who answered in Spanish. The system translated Cruz's words, posted English subtitles at the bottom of the screen and read them aloud in a computerized voice, and all that in less than a second.

Telepresence and Telelanguage

The technology used by Cisco, developed by Carnegie Melon University, is not perfect, but the ability to harness such a technology, and provide it as a standard, in five years time for all visual communication looks not only promising but also feasible. "Adding this kind of technology will make the world truly flat", says David Hsieh, Cisco's director of marketing for Telepresence. Telepresence will then bridge not only distance gaps "but also cultural and language gaps".

I often discuss here how video conferencing is striving to provide an "in-person" meeting experience. However, there are aspects in which video conferencing can surpass meetings as we know and hold today., Instead of trying to reach common grounds in some common language, forcing everyone to "compromise" in regards to what and how they communicate, having a "universal translator" at our disposal could be a huge advantage for video conferencing.

If video conferencing can connect people with hearing impairment to the hearing world, there shouldn't be a reason that people who speak and hear one another should not connect only because they speak different languages. Not much has changed since the 1870s, when Dr. Zamenhof realized that bridging across the language barrier would foster harmony between people. Back then, he went on to invent Esperanto. Nowadays we can just call it telelanguage.



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