Every so often I come across something new with computers or gadgets that surprises and delights.   This is no exception, except that I’ve known about its existence for quite a while now.   I’m talking about the app called Google Translate.

And wow, did this thing just make my jaw drop!

If you’ve never heard of it before, Google Translate is a free multilingual machine translation service developed by Google.   The service launched back in 2006 as a way of translating text between various languages.   The system used transcripts from the United Nations and European Parliament as examples of how translations worked.

However back in 2006, the service wasn’t the best and was often ridiculed with poor examples of translations.

A new algorithm was developed called Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT) which uses Neural Networks to translate entire sentences at a time.  This made the translations a lot more reliable and resulted in more widespread use.  The new system originally only worked with a few languages when it was released in 2016, however GNMT is gradually being applied to more languages.

Google Translate

Now Google Translate can support over 200 languages and at the end of May 2017 it was being used by over 500 million people daily!

The original translation could only be done between text, so for example emails, or web pages etc on computers.   The real breakthrough came when the service became an app and could run on smart phones.  Initially supporting text translation, it eventually supported natural speech. This became the realisation of many sci-fi dreams – the ability to speak in one language and be heard in a different one was groundbreaking.   If you’ve ever read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll have heard of the Babelfish – a similar device that was considered science fiction back in 1978!

Amazing as translating spoken words into another language is, the next development was truly revolutionary, and it was this that I experienced recently.   It’s translation of live video.   How is that useful you may be asking?

Once you see this in real life, it’s hard to distinguish it from magic.   This reminds me of a phrase from the renowned author Arthur C. Clarke;

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

Imagine you’re in a foreign country and you don’t know the language.   You come across a street sign and it doesn’t make any sense.   Well with the Google Translate App, you can simply point the camera at the sign and magically the text appears in your chosen language.  In real time – as you’re holding the camera. It really is astounding to see.  You can move the camera around to point at different parts of the sign, and as you do, the text you’re looking at on the screen magically shimmers and changes to a different language.  The font, the colour, everything changes to match the original text, but just in a different language.   It’s like you’re looking through a portal to another dimension where everything is the same, except the language is different.   What you’re experiencing is something I’ve discussed previously called “Augmented Reality”.

Now take this a step further to true augmented reality where you can imagine in the future we’ll have wearable computers built into eyeglasses.  What you’re looking at might look like English but is actually another language.   You won’t know unless you take the glasses off, as the experience will be so seamless.   You might also have wireless earbuds (already a thing) which are translating spoken words into your language of choice.    If whoever you’re speaking to also has them, you could talk to them in English and they’ll hear your response in their chosen language.

The ramifications for travel and cooperation are huge, as language is no longer a barrier.

If you have an Android phone or an iPhone, do yourself a favour today and download the app – it’s free.   You’ll get a glimpse of the future and it might prove invaluable on your next trip abroad.

Until next time, adios, arrivederci, ciao, auf Wiedersehen, au revoir and goodbye for now.