Microsoft Unveils Near-Real Time Language Translation For Skype

TECH 5/28/2014 @ 1:17AM

Microsoft Unveils Near-Real Time Language Translation For Skype

Skype hopes to make its international connections easier — though perhaps still a little awkward — with a new feature that automatically translates conversations almost in real time.

Parent company Microsoft unveiled the new technology at the Code technology conference on Tuesday, where Skype vice president Gurdeep Pall made small talk in English with a German-speaking Skype manager in Europe.

After saying a sentence in English, an automated voice translated his words into German. (You can watch the video here.)

It’s not quite the real-time universal translator that characters on “Star Trek” used to speak to alien life forms. And inevitably for a technology built on the still-tenuous foundations of speech recognition and machine translation, it’s not 100% accurate.

Pall’s demonstration with his colleague ended with this awkward exchange at the very end:

Pall: “So what brings you to the United States, in addition to of course helping me with this demo?”

“I have many meetings with my colleagues in Redmond and I take the opportunity to see her fiancĂ© my.”

Pall, after a pause replied: “That’s nice!”

German-speaking members of the audience were said to have thought the translation was “not so good” but generally understood the essence of it.

For all the kinks that probably have to be ironed out, this could still be a significant upgrade to Skype. The service has 300 million monthly active users around the world, many of whom might see this as a new opportunity to conduct business meetings.

It might also spur Google to add a similar feature to Hangouts, and Apple to FaceTime, Quartz’s Dan Frommer notes.

Beyond that, it illustrates how Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella is trying to turn more of the moon-shot technology being developed in his R&D labs, into products.

Microsoft Research, rather than Skype itself,  is largely responsible for the new translation feature — the same division that spawned the Kinect.

Microsoft Research started its “machine translation” group 15 years ago and has since been building a “neural network” that combines speech recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis, Nadella said.

One fascinating discovery to come out it is what he called transfer learning: “If you teach it English, it learns English,” he said. “Then you teach it Mandarin, it learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English. Then you teach it Spanish it’ll get good at Spanish, but it’ll get great at both Mandarin and English, and quite frankly none of us know exactly why.”


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