The End of Machine Translation As We Know It

04/26/2011 09:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2011
  • Nataly Kelly VP, Marketing at Smartling and Co-Author, 'Found in Translation'

As I drive into work this morning, I find myself listening to a fascinating interview with a renowned scientist. However, I find it hard to concentrate on what she is saying, because the interviewer's Boston accent keeps getting on my nerves. "Change accent to Midwest," I say. For the next part of the interview, I'm in auditory nirvana, listening to both parties speak about a fascinating topic, and even better, in the accent I grew up with.

However, as I hear these voices that remind me of home, my mind wanders to my great uncle. He loved science, and always encouraged me to study hard at this subject in school. "Change second voice to Uncle Nicholas," I say. Now, this makes my drive an absolute breeze. Hearing Uncle Nick tell me about the latest advances in science makes it so much easier for me to absorb the information. It's a shame he cannot be alive to hear his own voice forming sentences spoken by others, but I'm glad he had the foresight to leave so many recordings behind. It's one of my favorite features of the language conversion software that's built into my car.

Okay -- you caught me. I don't really have this tool available. And I don't have a great uncle named Nicholas. And a thick Boston accent does not annoy me (well, maybe just a little).

But this scenario, while entirely invented, is completely conceivable. And I didn't even reach the part where, while I was driving, I sent the interview around to a friend in Japan (translated into Japanese text and shared via Facebook), to my cousin's iPhone (purged of political content on which we happen to disagree), and to a high school student I am mentoring (converted into video and sung by cast members from Glee).

Science fiction just didn't take it far enough. The supposedly elusive goal of automatically converting information from one language into another -- commonly known as machine translation -- was not the end goal. That was only the beginning of a content transformation revolution. What we're already seeing in society is a proliferation of options for rendering information into our preferred formats.

Google is already giving people the opportunity to change reading levels as they surf the web. Speech technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. This week, I had a Skype video call with my nephew in which he looked like the Easter Bunny, courtesy of a digital overlay that mapped his facial movements.

During a short commute like the one I described, a person's preferences for receiving information can change every few minutes. Throughout the course of a typical day, there might be hundreds of moments in which we would change how communication takes place if we had any choice in the matter. But the options currently available to the average person are not so flexible. Today, we settle for what we have, but tomorrow's possibilities for improving communication will be limited only by human creativity.

The improvements in automatic, real-time, inter-language communication that we're seeing today mark an important moment in history. But when this technology gets personal and affects the average person, that's when we'll really see expanded interest, widespread adoption, and integration. It will become part of our everyday lives, to the point that we'll even take it for granted. Imagine the implications for teaching children -- or adults for that matter -- when they can receive information in ways that are highly relevant and customized to their learning styles and preferences. Humankind's ability to process and use information will vastly improve as a direct result of language conversion technologies.

Someday soon, we won't talk about machine translation. We'll discuss "language preferences," of which translation will be just one little part. Until then, people all around the world will be waiting for these advances in technology to reach them and enrich their lives. It's the end of machine translation as we know it. Let's just hope we don't have to wait very long.