Skype Makes Science Fiction a Reality

Skype recently announced the first working approximation of Douglas Adams’s famous Babel fish:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

Fortunately, you don’t have to stick Skype in your ear for it to work. Real-time, live computer-powered interpretation has been a goal for decades. Some of the earliest artificial intelligence research was aimed at achieving this.

Skype is not the first to make headway here. We all know Google Translate, but there are many other automated translation and interpreting tools out there to help when you’re in a pinch:

  • Word Lens – point your phone’s camera at a sign, and watch it magically change into another language on screen.
  • Bing Translator – just like Google Translate, but from Microsoft. When in doubt, compare the results from the two services to try to get more insight into what the text really says.
  • Chrome’s integrated Google Translate – instantly turn whole web pages into a language you can read.

These tools help reduce the impact of language barriers, and allow you to communicate with many more people than you otherwise could. If you imagine the world as only 100 people, just 5 would speak English as their first language. Would I stake my brand or my life on Skype or any other automated translation tool? No, not yet anyway.

Notice that tiny mix up at 5:50 in the video? It doesn’t affect the conversation, and it would be easy to clear up any confusion with a follow-up question or two. But when every word counts, you’ll still need to turn to a professional.

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