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Creating the Babel Fish – the 21st Century Game Changer

April 26, 2011

I find futurology  – the art of predicting future trends, discoveries and inventions – a fascinating business. Not only can you compare today’s world with that predicted by writers and scientists of yesteryear  – the likes of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur C Clarke – but you can try your own hand  against the experts in imagining the near future based on trends in play today.

Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, has written a book called Physics of the Future that is due to be published next month. In it, he cites ten key predictions that he has gathered from three hundred leading scientists.

The predictions start with the near term – contact lenses that give you digital images accessed via the internet, a personal body shop of spare organs, and telepathy devices that can decipher radio signals form the brain – all said to be achievable by 2030.

Then there scientists who predict that by 2070 we will be able to make Jurassic Park a reality by bringing back extinct animals, and that genetic engineering will substantially increase the human life span.

And there are those who say that by 2100 we will be able to change the shape of objects by creating “programmable matter”, develop nanoparticles that destroy cancer cells before they have the chance to turn into tumours, and that we will be able to become bionic men and women by implanting robotic technologies into our bodies.

And finally, also by the end of the century, we are led to believe that there will be sky elevators that will take us into orbit without the need for rockets, and tiny starships capable of approaching the speed of light.

Hollywood has already anticipated a number of these predictions in a variety of sci-fi movies, just as it dramatized many of the classic stories of Wells and Verne, such as War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine.

But for me, the most exciting fictional device of all is perhaps more mundane, but more far-reaching in terms of its potential global consequences. That device is the Babel Fish – the creation of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In Adams’s novel, the Babel Fish is actually not a device, but a fish that you insert in your ear. It translates every language in the universe into your own, so that you can have natural conversations as if the person you are talking to is speaking in your tongue.

Translation technology is still pretty crude – try translating the paragraph above into Russian and back again using the Google translation tool and you’ll see what I mean. And even the best interpreters struggle to provide a seamless translation into your earphones at a conference.

So imagine having a standalone earpiece – rather like the current Bluetooth device – that connects with other earpieces and simultaneously translates between languages. The same technology could be embedded in phones, TVs and cinemas.

There are numerous technical challenges. Artificial intelligence so sophisticated that it can make sense of fragments of speech, idiom, dialect and accent. Super-fast broadband that delivers the translated words virtually simultaneously.  The capacity to store a massive database of information in the earpiece, or to link to servers over the internet.  Then there is the problem of disambiguation, which occurs when a translator is asked to decide between more than one different meaning for a word.

The technology exists or is under development to deliver the hardware required for a Babel Fish device. The software is likely to be the main obstacle. But if IBM is capable of developing a computer that holds its own in quiz shows against human contestants, then the complexities of delivering meaning as well as words – in real time –  should be solvable within the foreseeable future.

So suppose as many people had a translation device as have smartphones today. Sadly, a lot of translators would find themselves out of work. But perhaps more significantly, language would no longer be a barrier in communications between cultures, societies and nationalities. Less widely-spoken languages would no longer be endangered by the dominant tongues, because people would be able to communicate freely in their native tongues. Linguistic hybrids used in SMS and instant messaging would no longer be necessary.

There would also be profound changes in the teaching of language. Because it is likely to be some time before translation software is capable of capturing all the nuances of all the main languages, it is possible that linguistic subsets will emerge that will need to be taught in schools. We already have Simplified English, which is a dramatically cut-down version of English based on an approved set of words and grammatical constructions.  Similar, but more sophisticated subsets would need to be developed for every language. But given time, such subsets would no longer be necessary, and Mandarin speakers would be able to have natural conversations with German speakers without understanding each other’s languages.

No technology is likely to take away the joy of learning and speaking foreign tongues.  But if we reach a point at which the majority of the world’s population can communicate freely without language barriers, then perhaps the sense of the other that pervades humanity will slowly erode, and it will be easier for us to transcend our cultural divisions.

There are downsides, of course. As is the case with internet-based technology in general, the consequences of a breakdown in a world relying on universal translation systems would be too catastrophic to think about.

And there are other, slightly scarier implications of similar technology.  The ability to analyse stress patterns in voices that might indicate that the other person is lying or hiding something is one example. So you could record a conversation and run a lie detection test when the conversation is over. Which is fine if you are in a business relationship, but potentially dangerous if you are a jealous spouse looking for signs of infidelity. However good the technology is, there will always need to be an element of human judgement in the process.

But technology is neutral. It’s what we do with it that matters. And translation technology will develop in the coming decades. If, to borrow the BBC motto, “nation shall speak unto nation” without the barrier of language, I bet that future generations will look back at the development  of a real Babel Fish as one of the most profound  events of this century – up there with the invention of the internet in the last one.

From → Education, Media, Social

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