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May 30, 2014

Microsoft Demonstrates Real-Time Translated Skype Conversations

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

Science fiction has long had devices that could translate communications. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, it was biological in the form of the Babel Fish, while in Star Trek it was the aptly named "universal translator." Those were just plot devices, but soon the real deal could arrive – and it won't involve shoving a fish in one's ear to understand someone who doesn't speak your language.

Microsoft announced this week that it will release a beta version of Skype Translate, a near real-time translation tool, by late this year. It was officially unveiled at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes as Microsoft vice president of Skype, Gurdeep Pall, used it to talk to a German-speaking colleague named Diana.

"There have been many attempts over the years, several within Microsoft Research, to demonstrate such aspects of translating human speech," Microsoft Research posted on its website. "But delivering something that is usable in real life, to fit the voice and utterances of many different users and the nuances of different languages—all of it built at scale to serve Skype users—has been considered a nearly impossible task."

The Microsoft Research article added, "Making Skype Translator available first on Windows 8 later this year as a limited beta has required a series of remarkable research advances in translation, speech recognition, and language processing, combined with contributions from Microsoft engineering and research teams near and far."

The technology is also the culmination of what Pall said was decades of work by the industry, as well as years of work by Microsoft's researchers. He added that it is now being developed jointly by Skype and Microsoft Translator teams, and noted that this technology is an example of why the software giant invests so heavily in basic research.

The translation technology is possible through the convergence of speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies that have been in development for more than a decade. Pall added that there will still be room for improvement.

"It is early days for this technology, but the Star Trek vision for a Universal Translator isn't a galaxy away, and its potential is every bit as exciting as those Star Trek examples," Pall said in a blog post – possibly metaphorically mixing Star Trek and Star Wars while making his point. "Skype Translator opens up so many possibilities to make meaningful connections in ways you never could before in education, diplomacy, multilingual families and in business."

Wired also reported that the deep learning techniques which are the basis to creating translation technology date back to the early 1980s, but remained mostly on the fringes of academia for two decades as powerful computers were never cheap enough to start doing practical work.

Microsoft is of course not the only company doing research into deep learning, and last year Facebook hired former New York University professor Yann LeCun to head its new artificial intelligence lab. From Facebook's offices in New York, LeCun now oversees the social network's deep-learning tools. While Facebook isn't apparently developing a translation tool (yet), it is instead looking at how this technology could analyze user data and behavior.

Microsoft is not the only company that is working on translation technology, but as Wired's Klint Finley noted, it shows that the tech giant is still very viable in creating innovative technology.

"Many think of Microsoft is a lumbering dinosaur, but projects like this–along with things like Kinect–show the benefits of being a large company that can spend several years, or even a couple of decades, developing new technology," Klint wrote. "Google may have taken the lead in turning blue-sky research into reality, but it’s far too early to count Microsoft out."

Microsoft's Pall said that Skype Translator will be available as a Windows 8 beta app by the end of this year.