Weekend Coffee: Universal Translators

Weekend Coffee: Universal Translators October 22, 2017

It’s not quite Star Trek, but this technology from Google is a step in that direction:

The Pixel 2 smartphone and wireless earbuds can translate spoken language in real time, allowing two people who don’t speak the same language to have a conversation. And it’s not only Google that’s doing this: As the Guardian notes, other tech companies like Bragi and Microsoft’s Skype also have built-in live translation.

As often happens, it was a government need that drove the creation of this technology: specifically, the need for soldiers in a foreign country to communicate with local people, without having to rely on interpreters who might be in short supply. As with other world-changing innovations like the internet, GPS and autonomous cars, the military application drove initial R&D to the point where the technology became good enough for for-profit companies to see the value in it and develop it for the general public. (Did you know that Apple’s Siri also began as a military research project?)

The technology isn’t flawless, of course – it seems to be the usual just-slightly-off standard of machine translation – so human translators doing important diplomatic, legal or medical work don’t have to fear for their jobs just yet. But it already seems good enough for a tourist in a foreign country to ask directions or order at a restaurant. And it’s only going to get better with time. It’s very plausible that, in two or three decades, the idea of not being able to communicate with another human being will seem like a strange dilemma from the dark ages.

The tech companies are doing this to sell smartphones first and foremost. But I think the potential of this technology to foster world peace and global cooperation is very real. How much racism, how much xenophobia is driven by humans being unable to understand each other?

The fact that that the human species is fragmented and divided by language must play a part in fostering small, parochial perspectives. It makes people see themselves as members of towns, regions or countries first and foremost, rather than as a global civilization all sharing the same planet. It leads to knee-jerk nationalism, insistence on strict borders, and a willingness to dehumanize and to treat foreigners as other-than. It’s not the sole cause, but it’s bound to be a cause.

If everyone could talk to each other, it might help us to see that we’re all human beings alike under the skin. That can only be a good thing for peace between nations and between people.

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