Microsoft unveiled a new technology called Skype Translator that may soon eliminate one of the biggest roadblocks in interpersonal communications.
On May 27, during the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype and Lync, showed how Skype Translator can provide near-real-time translation service. At the heart of the demo is neural net technology from Microsoft Research that enables a feature called “transfer learning.”
While explaining transfer learning, Nadella said, “What happens is, say, you teach it English. It learns English. Then you teach it Mandarin, it learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English.”
Taken a step further, when the system is taught Spanish, it learns Spanish and “gets great at both Mandarin and English,” said Nadella. He also admitted that like some of the innermost workings of the brain, the phenomenon is a mystery to Microsoft. “And quite frankly, none of us know exactly why,” he said. “It’s brain-like in the sense of its capability to learn.”
Pall then took to the stage to show a pre-beta version of Skype Translator in action.
Enlisting the help of a German colleague, Diana Heinrichs, Pall carried on a Skype video call. After a slight pause, Skype Translator delivered both English and German translations of their spoken words via on-screen text and synthesized voice. Despite some minor grammatical errors, the demo went on without a hitch.
Later, Pall explained in a blog post how Skype Translator came to be. The technology is the result of “decades of work by the industry, years of work by our researchers, and now is being developed jointly by the Skype and Microsoft Translator teams.”
The demo delivered “real-time audio translation from English to German and vice versa, combining Skype voice and IM [Instant Messaging] technologies with Microsoft Translator, and neural network-based speech recognition,” he said.
Like its sci-fi analog, Star Trek’s Universal Translator, the tech has the potential to dramatically change communications, Pall said. “Skype Translator opens up so many possibilities to make meaningful connections in ways you never could before in education, diplomacy, multi-lingual families and in business.”
While Skype’s massive reach—300 million connected users per month and more than 2 billion minutes of conversation each day, according to Pall—has broken down communication barriers, language persists as a major hurdle. Calling language barriers “a blocker to productivity and human connection,” Pall said, “Skype Translator helps us overcome this barrier.”
And users won’t have to wait for a far-off future to test the tech. “Skype Translator first will be available as a Windows 8 beta app before the end of 2014,” Pall said.
Skype Translator isn’t Microsoft’s only effort to remove barriers to communication through technology. Microsoft Research Asia is working on a project, called Kinect Sign Language Translator, that can translate between different spoken and sign languages, also in near-real time.