Those of us who grew up watching Star Trek, in any of its generations, were undoubtedly impressed and amazed at the possibility of communicating with any other beings in the universe. While we’re not there yet, Microsoft is working on a project, currently called Skype Translator, which brings us yet another step closer to that goal.

Skype Translator Unveiled At Code Conference

Last week, at Code Conference in California, the world was treated to an early preview of Skype Translate. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Gurdeep Pall, Corporate Vice President of Skype, gave a demonstration of the tool in action. Pall was able to carry on a live audio video chat with a German-speaking colleague, Diana Heinrichs, in which Skype Translator delivered an excellent translation, in real-time.

The translation wasn’t quite perfect, and there was at least one obvious grammatical flaw in its English rendering, but it was completely understandable. The conversation was actually fairly complex. They discussed Pall’s plans to relocate to London, Ms. Heinrichs’ experience of her visit to the US. They also discussed restaurants which serve good Indian food. Microsoft says that Skype Translator will be available as a Windows 8 program before the end of the year.

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Microsoft’s Long History Of Translation Technology Research

For Microsoft, Skype Translator represents the convergence of a number of projects. They purchased Skype, the hugely popular (over 300 million users) messaging / calling / videochat program, in 2011 for $8.5 billion. They’ve also been working on the translation technology that runs all of this, known as Microsoft Translator, for more than 15 years. Skype Translator is the joint product of these two teams.

Machine translation, as it’s called, has been a long-standing area of research at Microsoft. It has already been used to generate translations of Microsoft’s extensive Knowledge Base of support information. This is also the brains behind Bing Translator. But real-time translation, in a semantically and grammatically correct form, has always seemed, like, well, science-fiction.

Skype Translator represents a significant breakthrough. It successfully combines instant language translation with speech recognition. Which also needs to be highly accurate, as well as speech synthesis. This has been a difficult synthesis to achieve. Though it is finally beginning to be realized through what is known as “deep learning”. This branch of computer science is developing systems called “neural networks”. Which, like their counterparts in the human brain, have the ability to “learn”. The more data they analyze, the better they get at it.

 Skype Translator Learns As It Works

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this, as Nadella explained in his presentation, is what they call “transfer learning”. We can “train” the program to understand a language, for example, English, and then add another language, say Mandarin, to its repertoire. While it gets good at Mandarin, it gets even better at English. This phenomenon continues to increase as we teach it more languages. Add Spanish to the equation, and it gets even better at both English and Mandarin. And, Nadella adds, “quite frankly, none of us know exactly why.”

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Therein lies the magic of a program like Skype Translator. I enjoy living in a time in which I’ve been fortunate enough to have watch the development of technologies that once were science fiction, and seeing many of those produced and becoming widely available. It’s interesting to see that Microsoft, who many of us have somewhat written off as being behind the times, is at the cutting edge of translation technology.

Along with programs like Word Lens, recently purchased by Google, universal communications are becoming more and more real. I still can’t get the Star Trek Universal Translator I’ve been waiting for, but I’ll certainly be downloading Skype Translator as soon as it’s available.

Microsoft Blog: Microsoft Demos Breakthrough In Real Time Translated Conversations
Microsoft Research: Enabling Cross-Lingual Conversations In Real Time

About the author

Fred Scholl

I'm an unabashed enthusiast of all things Android, open-source, and technology in general. I'm also an avid music lover and musician, playing guitar, bass, keyboards, and a host of other stringed instruments.