Google Plans Speech Translation Phone
Never one to shy away from the impossible, Google has revealed a new project aiming to do something usually regarded as a science fiction dream: speech-to-speech language translation.
Remember the Babel Fish, from Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the little fish that could instantly translate alien languages into English? It's like that, but with less fish in your ear.
According to The Times, Frank Och, Google head of translation services, plans to use existing technologies in voice recognition and translation to have a usable speech-to-speech translation tool built into a phone "in a few years time."
At first, this seems like a natural extension of one of Google's other big projects: Google Translate. This free service is easily one of the best and most accurate ways of translating text into another language. However, it's a big leap, technologically speaking, to go from text to the spoken word.
The biggest obstacle remains the variability of voices, accents and pitch we all use. Computers have a harder time recognizing them than humans. David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, believes that problem alone will delay Google's efforts. "Maybe Google will be able to get there faster than everyone else, but I think it’s unlikely we’ll have a speech device in the next few years that could handle high-speed Glaswegian slang," he said.
Despite the hurdles, Och remains optimistic about achieving just that within a few years.
"Clearly, for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition, and that's what we're working on," Och told The Times. "If you look at the progress in machine translation and corresponding advances in voice recognition, there has been huge progress recently."