Google Translate’s ‘Conversation Mode’ Coming To Your Phone

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Google Conversation Mode

Will 2011 be the year of the universal translator?

Hundreds of companies are working to hammer down the language barrier, but Google’s about to bring in a wrecking ball. For the past year, the giant amongst search engines has been touting a new feature they will be bringing to their smart phones – it’s called ‘Conversation Mode’. Combining the high speed text translations of Google Translate and the text to speech/speech to text skills of Google Voice Actions, Conversation Mode allows users to speak in one language and have their phone speak in another. Google hasn’t announced any firm launch dates (it’s been ‘months away’ for months now) but they demonstrated the technology during IFA 2010 in September to great effect. You can watch the demo in the video clip below. We’ve seen smart phone based applications like this before, but not with the power or versatility of Google Translate behind them. For those who are keeping track, GT added its 57th language this year. Conversation Mode still has its bugs to work out, but it looks like a nearly universal translator could be coming to your phone in 2011.


This video clip is from Eric Schmidt’s hour-long keynote address at IFA 2010 in September. You can watch the entire presentation here.

We’ve been talking about universal translators a lot recently because there have been so many wonderful demonstrations of the technology in the past 18 months. Smart phone applications capable of translating a single language to English have been available for a while, with great examples for Spanish and Arabic appearing in late 2009. (Prototype software, of course, has been around for much longer.) In those same 18 months we’ve also seen advancements in text to speech/speech to text programs, and the number of applications using that capability continues to increase. I think it’s clear that we’re approaching a perfect storm moment in the development of universal translators. We have the necessary pieces to start cobbling a UT together, and in my mind that’s what Conversation Mode really is. Glue Voice Actions to Google Translate and you get a system that can handle 50+ languages with lag times of just a few seconds. And there’s every reason to believe that Conversation Mode will be free. How incredible is that?

Of course, not everything about a Google created voice translator will be perfect. Google Translate is definitely a cloud-based service, meaning that Conversation Mode will likely require connectivity to work. Not very useful if you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get a signal. Also, as you could clearly see in the video above, the Conversation Mode demo took three attempts to properly translate “color”. The first generation of this service is likely to require some major amounts of patience.

Yet one of the most promising things about Conversation Mode is that it will get better with time. Possibly much better. Google Translate learns how to convert between languages by examining millions of documents and developing rules for translation that constantly evolve. Because it is cloud-based, you can access improvements in Google Translate almost as soon as they are made. Conversation Mode (and its successors) won’t just be a great semi-universal translator, it will be a tool that changes as the languages of the world change. A UT not just for today, but for the future in perpetuity. In five years I expect I will be able to travel around the world and never need a translator besides my phone. In ten I think the language barrier will be so crumbled that we will take it for granted that we are crossing over it many times each day. It’s going to be amazing.


[sources: Google at IFA (video), The Times]

Discussion — 29 Responses

  • Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 4:36 pm

    Yes, its going to be amazing time for millions losing their jobs(translators, people responsible for documentation, interpreters)

    • Anonymous Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 6:09 pm

      Doubtful. Didn’t you just see the video. Google needs more human translators to translate documents to improve the system. I know from personal experience trying to read some Korean documents translated to English, that this system still needs a lot of work. And then it only translates basic language.

      What about words, idioms, slang. Translators will be needed to understand these complex concepts even after Google Translate figures out the simple translations. I think they need more help then ever from users. And try to make the system more accessible.

      For instance even knowing only English I can tell when someone from another country translates something wrong and can change it to make it sound more natural.

    • C1998558 Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 7:58 pm

      Yes and the VCR will kill television and MP3s are the downfall of the music industry. It’s just an application not the catalyst for millions of jobs to be lost.

      • Extrasolarangel C1998558 January 6, 2011 on 8:35 pm

        [quote]Yes and the VCR will kill television and MP3s are the downfall of the music industry.[/quote]
        Apples and oranges. And yes MP3’s did hurt music industry. However it hurt big dogs. This villanous idea will directly eliminate millions of jobs for translation freelancers, translators, interpreters, document specialists and so on.

        I see nothing awesome in something that will ruin lives of millions, so that few rich brats can travel the world and known automatically what local beggers cry out in the dark.

        • Anonymous Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 9:13 pm

          I love ur use of loaded words like “villanous ideas” as if the technology is criminal simply by its creation.
          “ruin lives of millions” Lol. now ur sounding like a politician. Well this technology will also allow Billions to communicate the world over.

          In any case like I said earlier, I sincerely doubt those people will lose their jobs. I know I for one don’t use a translator I would assume you do not either. This technology will provide average people something they did not have. I imagine the people already with jobs as translators will keep them, and find lots more work until the technology matures in 20 years and then even after that until eventually computers are powerful and cheap enough to make human translators obsolete.

          This has always been the way things are. Look at the cotton loom, printing press, and cotton gin (those poor slaves lost their jobs ;) ). Progress never stops. Jobs are lost. No one has any responsibility to make sure people keep their jobs. If their skills are obsolete they must find new ones. New Jobs are created. New skills are needed. Change is bad. Change is good. But one thing is for certain change can not be stopped.

          Luckily history shows most of the time it leads to greater distribution of wealth and prosperity.

          • Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 9:28 pm

            ”as if the technology is criminal simply by its creation”
            Sure it is. It will lead to poverty by people losing their jobs, perhaps you like shiny gadgets over people’s lives. I don’t.
            ”Well this technology will also allow Billions to communicate the world over.”
            It will serve only the rich elite, that will grow richer while the poorer grow poorer. Billions-that’s laughable. Not even internet broke that numbers yet.

            ”In any case like I said earlier, I sincerely doubt those people will lose their jobs.”
            The people heard that propaganda song way too often. The results were always the same-people lost their jobs, livelyhood while the rich got richer. It has to stop. Not all progress is good. Inventions that are created to eliminate jobs need to be banned worldwide and condemned for destructive influence upon human civilization.
            ”until eventually computers are powerful and cheap enough to make human translators obsolete.”
            So they will lose their jobs, your propaganda slogans couldn’t conceal that for long, could they.

            ”This has always been the way things are”
            Yes, people were opressed throught history, lost their lives to elites and so on. It doesn’t mean it has to continue.
            ”Look at the cotton loom, printing press, and cotton gin (those poor slaves lost their jobs ;) )”
            Slavery isn’t a job, I suggest you look up in dictionary as to the terms you are using in your propaganda speeches.

            ”Progress never stops. Jobs are lost.”
            Oh that is not true:progress is not a law of nature. We could be using nuclear power for mining or space propulsion but we decided to avoid it. This slogan is only put forward by those hoping that they will be part of the elite that will take advantage of misfortune of others.
            ”No one has any responsibility to make sure people keep their jobs”
            Says what law of nature? In fact, I would bet many if not most people would argue that is is untrue and both society and government should make sure people keep their jobs. In fact that is what governments besides the most corrupt ones are doing.

            ”If their skills are obsolete they must find new ones.”
            Their skills wouldn’t be obsolete if not for attempts of others to make them so. To make other people be poor.
            ”New Jobs are created. New skills are needed”
            Bulls*it. No force of nature says there is constant new supply of jobs, in fact as current situation shows, there can be something as peak employement and people can’t find jobs.
            ” Change is bad. Change is good”
            Meaningless prop sentence.

            ”But one thing is for certain change can not be stopped.”
            Yes, that’s why we are using Orion rockets and nuclear charges in mining, while states use chemical and biological weapons in warfare all the time. Get real, change can be stopped and was numerous times in the past, when it was realised that it will lead to awfull things.
            It’s time the gadgetmaniacs that want our jobs to be eliminated by treated for what they are-a threat to our lives.

            ”Luckily history shows most of the time it leads to greater distribution of wealth and prosperity. ”
            Biggest lie that was ever spoken. There are more poor people today then they were in the past, and middle aged peasants in England had better than most people in Third World today.

            • Homer500 Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 10:18 pm

              You enjoy using the term “rich elites” to create a villain in these stories. I don’t consider myself rich, but I will certainly make use of translation gadgets when they become available and reasonably effective.

              Similarly, I look forward to the benefits of autonomous cars. What’s your take on them? They will undoubtedly displace chauffeurs and cab drivers. Does that qualify driverless autos as “villanous”? Should we relinquish technology that could avert millions of deaths simply because it will bring about unemployment for some?

              Network routing technology long ago replaced human switchboard operators. And what was the result? Some people did have to find new jobs, but the change allowed us to grow our communication infrastructure to immense sizes. Did the rich benefit as a result? Absolutely. And did the poor? You bet! The 5+ billion cell phones in use today (the majority of which are in developing countries) rely on automated networks.

              And we could go on. What about image analysis algorithms that can reduce the number of high-paid radiologists required in hospitals? Sure, insurance companies will benefit, but so will patients and ordinary tax payers.

              As tech progress affects more and more jobs, the answer is to modify our economic system, rather than demand we relinquish development and growth out of fear of unemployment.

              • Extrasolarangel Homer500 January 7, 2011 on 3:28 pm

                They came first for the Communists,
                and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

                Then they came for the trade unionists,
                and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

                Then they came for the Jews,
                and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

                Then they came for me
                and by that time no one was left to speak up.
                ***
                “What you need to understand about the apocalypse is that you aren’t Mad Max. You’re part of the skull pyramid in the background.”

                • Yes Extrasolarangel January 7, 2011 on 9:01 pm

                  I’m bilingual and I know for a fact these programs will only work in the kind of simple examples shown in the video above. It will not work for any kind of dialog that has any complexity, which is what professional interpreters are hired for anyway. If you don’t believe me, try inserting any article or any other types of formal writing (from another language, into English) into Google Translate and see if it makes any sense.

                  Unless you’re translating something written by a grade schooler, you’ll only get the general gist of the idea at best since it drops all the nuances and specificities of language and just churns things out as-is. For anybody who needs a serious, professionally done translation, this is not going to be enough. Are you going to trust your next contract to this program, which is basically a fancy, user-friendly dictionary? Keep in mind that these types of gadgets have existed for a while already…there have been hand-held translation/dictionary programs since the 90s (look it up) but no-one was making a stink about it then. In fact, people who do professional interpretation often are users of those devices themselves.

                  Like you said yourself, in the end its just a gadget for people to use. People who use this on the street will still be perceived as a clueless tourist, similar to if you saw someone using a dictionary to ask someone how to get to the restroom. Things aren’t really going to change all that much, so you might as well stop scaring yourself.

                  I swear, seems like a lot of people get off on the drama of thinking that the end of the world is always coming about. Reality doesn’t work like that.

                • Kristof77 Extrasolarangel January 8, 2011 on 1:13 am

                  I thought the crazys hadn’t found the Hub yet…
                  Didn’t it say this would be an free service for everyone to use, I’m not sure how that will only benefits the elite. You may also want to check your statistics, but the world doesn’t support millions of translator jobs…In the US we have a little more than 50,000
                  These are pretty neat, it’s called citation, (http://www.studentscholarships.org/salary/430/interpreters_and_translators.php?p=2)
                  It’s so you can see where I’m getting my information rather than just pulling a number out at random.
                  I would suspect that is pretty significant percentage of the worlds’ translators (with many those already working overseas).

                  • Extrasolarangel Kristof77 January 8, 2011 on 7:16 pm

                    ”I thought the crazys hadn’t found the Hub yet…”
                    In case you haven’t noticed-this website is titled singularityhub-that’s crazy enough ;]

                    ”Didn’t it say this would be an free service for everyone to use, I’m not sure how that will only benefits the elite”
                    How naive. Only the rich elites of this world have access to smartphones as talked about it in this article.
                    ”In the US we have a little more than 50,000”
                    Let me quote from the article you didn’t care to read: “However, the actual number of interpreters and translators is probably significantly higher because many work in the occupation only sporadically”
                    And in case you haven’t noticed-US is not the whole world.

                    ”I would suspect that is pretty significant percentage of the worlds’ translators”
                    Why? Because it is in your shiny beacon of corporate corruption and financial bancrupcy? You might be surprise but the world is not made out of USA, and in fact there are far many more interpreters and translators in the rest of the world.

    • kristof77 Extrasolarangel January 8, 2011 on 2:10 pm

      Yeah no doubt, just think of all those jobs we lost due to the printing press, that invention cost millions upon millions of jobs too. It also brought education to the masses, but who cares, damn you technology for improving the standard of living.

      If your so anti-tech you should just throw computer away, it cost a lot of people their jobs also.

      • Extrasolarangel kristof77 January 8, 2011 on 7:17 pm

        ”It also brought education to the masses, but who cares, damn you technology for improving the standard of living. ”
        Unsourced propaganda. In fact in many ways people in Middle Ages lived better lives then those who now have access to cell phones.

        • Homer500 Extrasolarangel January 10, 2011 on 6:36 pm

          Let me see if I have this straight — you think claims about the benefits of the printing press are “unsourced propaganda”? Would we have been better off without the printing press, electricity, the automobile or the computer?

          Do you drive a car? If so, shouldn’t you sell it and use a horse and carriage for your transportation needs? Or does your posturing only apply to others?

          • Extrasolarangel Homer500 January 12, 2011 on 12:58 pm

            ”Would we have been better off without the printing press, electricity, the automobile or the computer?”
            Quite possibly-yes.

            ”Do you drive a car? If so, shouldn’t you sell it and use a horse and carriage for your transportation needs? Or does your posturing only apply to others?”
            I don’t drive a car. Nor did I ever wanted to. Which doesn’t really matter, since I can’t also afford one, nor do I have a driving license.

    • Anonymous Extrasolarangel January 12, 2011 on 10:34 am

      On the contrary, a system like this will increase the efficiency of existing translators & interpreters. For professional purposes, one cannot completely rely on machine translations. They will require finishing touches from the professionals. Your contention that Machine Translations will ruin millions jobs is a paranoid view of life. That will not happen. However, a technology like this can be a boon for the billions inhabiting this planet and it will help in building bridges between people of distant civilisations.

  • Rodomonte January 6, 2011 on 5:05 pm

    the same problem ever….this is usefull for all but not for human traslator, tomorrow we have the same but with farmers, tomorrow with advocate: BEFORE DO THIS WE HAVE TO UPDATE ECONOMIC SYSTEM!

  • Anonymous January 6, 2011 on 5:23 pm

    I’ll be talking about universal translators at SXSWi this year (‘So Long, and Thanks for All the Babelfish‘). Come along, if you’re around. It should be fun. :)

  • Visionary Excellence January 6, 2011 on 5:32 pm

    I’m all for automation displacing human workers from boring tedious narrowly defined jobs. But yes the old economy is going to struggle if the creation of new job categories does not keep pace with the destruction of old categories.

    In the mean time, now everyone can afford a translator. Its easier to travel and or collaborate with businesses/people around the world. I’m geeked to see how this will be applied in years to come. What are the unintended non obvious side bennefits?

    • Extrasolarangel Visionary Excellence January 6, 2011 on 6:55 pm

      [quote]I’m all for automation displacing human workers from boring tedious narrowly defined jobs.[/quote]
      I am all for human workers displacing people trying to erase our jobs.
      [quote]
      In the mean time, now everyone can afford a translator[/quote]
      Everyone employed that is. Or are you removing people not part of the rich elite from the “human” category?

      • Hywel Extrasolarangel January 6, 2011 on 9:18 pm

        Easy translation programmes will help create jobs! Why not go back to using spoons instead of JCBs to do construction work so we can have more people in worK?

        • Extrasolarangel Hywel January 7, 2011 on 11:14 am

          ”Easy translation programmes will help create jobs!”
          Yes, making translators, interpreters and document specialists obsolete will make jobs!
          War is Peace ! Truth is a Lie! How orwellian of you to make such claim :)
          A unsupported claim, its obvious that they will lead to loss of work for translators.

          ”Why not go back to using spoons instead of JCBs to do construction work so we can have more people in worK? ”
          And now a ridicolous attack. It seems your message is empty of meaning and just serves to attack the obvious fact that this invention will destroy many people’s lives.

  • Aoi January 6, 2011 on 6:06 pm

    MT is like fusion, it’s been x years away for x years. Note that in the demo, both speakers already knew what was being said, so knew when the system had failed, as happened with “color.” And the system was operating under near optimal conditions: no ambient noise, relaxed speech with no context or complexity. I’ll be interested when MT in any form produces near human-level output in real-world scenarios.

    • Karybdis Aoi January 7, 2011 on 4:30 am

      I’m not sure fusion is exactly the right thing to use for comparison here. They’re currently building the first experimental reactor, and assuming it works as planned, the commercial demonstrator model a few years later (to be proven by 2040 or so).

      Given ITER could fail horribly, but fusion seems to be a pretty solid timeline at this point.

      Saying MT is like fusion is like saying it hasn’t worked for a long time, but it’s suddenly becoming possible or at least timeline predictable.

  • Socrates January 6, 2011 on 7:29 pm

    Wow,

    That is truly impressive! …Even more so than the Word Lens iPhone app.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Hywel January 6, 2011 on 9:24 pm

    english always has the ‘union’ flag……..it has other more indigenous languages like welsh/cymraeg aswell…..should use an english flag instead

  • Ivan Malagurski January 10, 2011 on 7:08 am

    Bye bye Rossetta Stone…

  • Craig J January 26, 2011 on 8:52 pm

    I think it is still going to have problems as most languages contain localizations and many slang words.
    There will always be room for human translators. it does fill the gap for travelers in a foreign country for a short time though.

  • Raymond Blakney April 5, 2013 on 1:07 pm

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