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A little while back, I wrote a diary about the Space-Age vision of the 21st century, which included such things as Uranium powered Ford sedans, domed cities (possibly controlled by Mickey Mouse), robot servants, and replacing food with pills. Why in God's name would people ever replace one of the few natural joys of existence, eating, with downing a pill? I don't know, but someone thought it seemed futuristic to stuff the nutrition of a hamburger into a capsule. We're less than five years away from 2015, and there are still no flying DeLoreans, Mr. Fusion home energy reactors, hoverboards, self-drying jackets, shoes with power laces, or a sign the Cubs will win the World Series any time soon.

However, there is news that a piece of Trek-nology may come to pass; the Universal Translator.

According to the U.K.'s Times Online, the boys & girls over at Google believe they can create a phone/hand-held device that can offer real-time translation.

The company has already created an automatic system for translating text on computers, which is being honed by scanning millions of multi-lingual websites and documents. So far it covers 52 languages, adding Haitian Creole last week.

Google also has a voice recognition system that enables phone users to conduct web searches by speaking commands into their phones rather than typing them in. Now it is working on combining the two technologies to produce software capable of understanding a caller’s voice and translating it into a synthetic equivalent in a foreign language. Like a professional human interpreter, the phone would analyse "packages" of speech, listening to the speaker until it understands the full meaning of words and phrases, before attempting translation.

"We think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years’ time," said Franz Och, Google’s head of translation services. "Clearly, for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition, and that’s what we’re working on."

I've always been fascinated by language, in the respect that no matter how many "tongues" humanity may have created or how many differences may exist between disparate people, connections are still possible. But language is also a fascinating aspect of humanity's ability to complicate the simple. There are a few hurdles (some of them very tall) that any universal translator will have to jump over to work.

  • Quality Of Voice Recognition - For the program to work effectively in real-time, it will have to understand the person speaking, no matter how fast they're talking or how thick their accent may be, otherwise you'll get a babbling mess of words.
  • Subject-Verb-Object vs Subject-Object-Verb - The English language is structured in a subject-verb-object typology. For example, the sentence "I opened the box." is:

    Iopenedthe box.

    However, the Japanese language is Subject-Object-Verb. So the sentence "私は箱を開けます。" (watashi wa hako wo akemasu.) is structured literally in the way Master Yoda talks.
    watashi wahako woakemasu.
    Ia/the boxopen

    So if someone speaking Japanese was speaking to someone speaking English, the universal translator program in the phone is going to have a hard time translating in real-time to English if it doesn't know the verb until the end of the sentence. Star Trek fans have come up with explanations for how the Trek universal translator is able to do it ("the universal translator can read brainwaves" or "the universal translator has a suped-up 23rd century version of cellphone predictive text")
  • Cultural Idioms, Slang, Metaphors, etc. - There are some words & phrases that don't quite translate, especially those used as metaphors within cultures. Does "bad" mean good, or does "bad" mean bad? How about "IDK, my BFF Jill?" Even Trek's Universal Translator has been shown to have a problem with this:

  • Inflection - Sometimes when you're in a conversation with someone, a question is not meant to be a question. It's rhetorical to prove a point, but your voice inflection is important in selling it that way. Inflection can also be important when trying to deduce a statement that has different possible meanings. In '(500) Days of Summmer,' there's a scene where Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) psychs himself out of asking Summer (Zooey Deschanel) on a date, because of her response to his smalltalk question of "how was your weekend?" (her response: "It was good."). Tom & his friends then argue over her inflection of "good" and what that may mean. Could it mean nothing at all? Does it mean she spent the weekend with someone?

However, never doubt the ability of "Star Trek" to predict the future.

  • Clamshell communication devices (a.k.a. cellphones).
  • PADDs & Tricorders - small iPhone & iPad like devices that have many "apps" for every possible situation, except a Tricorder can probably run Flash too.
  • "Transparent Aluminum" -  Aluminum oxynitride (AlON) is a transparent ceramic composed of aluminum, oxygen and nitrogen that can apparently be produced in sizes large enough for windows; aluminum oxide, a chemical compound of aluminum and oxygen (Al2O3) is made transparent through a process of fusing fine particles; and transparent nanophase aluminum in various colours.

And maybe, someday, even Warp Drive.

"We think we can create an effective warp drive, based on general relatively and string theory," said Gerald Cleaver, coauthor of the paper that recently appeared on the preprint server

The warp engine is based on a design first proposed in 1994 by Michael Alcubierre. The Alcubierre drive, as it's known, involves expanding the fabric of space behind a ship into a bubble and shrinking space-time in front of the ship. The ship would rest in between the expanding and shrinking space-time, essentially surfing down the side of the bubble.

Originally posted to 医生的宫殿 on Mon Feb 08, 2010 at 10:10 PM PST.

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