Digital Life


Skype's Star Trek-like universal translator is amazing whether it works or not

This week at Re/Code's Code Conference, Microsoft announced a real-time, multilingual translation beta called Skype Translate. The service can mediate between two video chatterers who speak different languages by providing text and audio translation after each person finishes speaking.

Currently the service works for English and German, but Microsoft says it will support other languages soon. The beta will be released later this year.

Realistically, Skype Translate won't be ready to take over for interpreters at the United Nations anytime soon. But the fact that it is coming from a large company like Microsoft and being tested on a really mainstream product like Skype shows that we are actually making progress towards a Star Trek-like universal translator – and that's amazing.

There has been tonnes of research into things such as automatic speech-to-text transcription, textual translation (Google Translate and Bing Translator), and digital speech recognition. But these are difficult machine-learning problems to solve.

The big issue is that accuracy needs to be near 100 per cent for these services to actually be useful. For example, a recent DARPA speech-to-speech translation program called TransTac achieved 80 per cent accuracy, which was a fascinating and significant step, but still not enough for regular use. There are also consumer apps such as Vocre that offer services very similar to Skype Translate.

The difference here is that Microsoft is behind this service. Sure, the company may be struggling with its vision for tablets and other next-generation products, but it is still a major player, and Skype is pretty ubiquitous. Whether Skype Translate is a hit right away or, more likely, it takes years to refine, Microsoft is being bold in bringing the technology to the mainstream now.