The United Nations has 193 member states and six official languages. When a speaker delivers a speech to the UN in one of those six languages, a team of a dozen interpreters translate the speech instantaneously. It’s exhausting work. So exhausting that the interpreters apparently take 20 minute shifts before they switch out to give themselves a break.
This doesn’t factor in the countless journalists and media people who must translate the speech into the language of their respective countries’ publications and news organizations. Now imagine if all this work could be done by the headsets those diplomats, ambassadors and journalists may be using to receive the interpreters’ translations. Theoretically, it would streamline and speed up the process – and it would put all those interpreters out of work.
Now the theoretical is closer and closer to becoming a reality.
Companies such as Australia’s Lingmo and the US’s Waverly Labs have created affordable earpieces that promise simultaneous translation in multiple languages right in the recipient’s ear. Lingmo’s Translate One2One is available for $179 USD this summer. It utilizes IBM’s famous Watson supercomputer technology and translates across English, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German and Chinese (no Arabic yet unfortunately). It does it in three to five seconds and claims to handle much of the contextual, cultural, dialect and slang elements of a language that make Google Translate practically useless for anything beyond basic word for word translation. Amazing, isn’t it?
Around the same time, Waverly Labs, a company specializing in wearable technology and speech translation, has come out with the Pilot Translating Earpiece. It is currently available for pre-order at $249 USD and won’t start shipping until fall 2017. The Pilot comes with free access to English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese translation, but you’ll have to pay extra for Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, German, Hindi and various other languages. One of the catches with the Pilot is you have to communicate with someone else who is also using a set.
The possibilities – and repercussions – are seemingly endless with this technology, which is still in the nascent stages. Who knows what future generations will be capable of? Its uses can obviously extend beyond UN speeches to business meetings, government negotiations, dating websites….and the list goes on and on. Instantaneous and accurate written translation doesn’t seem to be very far away at this point.
And while we’re not there yet, translators of the world could find themselves being replaced by AI much in the same way as factory workers have already lost theirs to automation and how taxi and truck drivers’ livelihoods are in peril with the emergence of self-driving vehicles. Will people even bother learning other languages when they have technology doing it for them? The frontier has arrived, and change is coming.