In the year 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone was inscribed with the same text three different times: once in Egyptian hieroglyphs, once in the Egyptian Demotic script, and once in Ancient Greek. The discovery of this document in 1799 provided enough clues for linguists to finally translate Ancient Egyptian. Even today, the legacy of the Rosetta Stone lives on in language-learning software with the same name.
In the not-so-distant future, Professor Louise Banks uses her knowledge of human languages to crack the code of visiting aliens who just arrived on Earth. Later, in the year 2151 AD, Starfleet had its first encounter with the Klingons, and from 2265 to 2270, Lt. Nyota Uhura served as Chief Communications Officer on the USS Enterprise. Fluent in English, Swahili, Klingon, and three dialects of Romulan, Uhura’s translation and interpretation skills were invaluable on several missions.
Reliable translation and cross-cultural communication skill are important in many social, diplomatic, and business situations. Rather than rely on error-prone humans, many people (both in science fiction and the real world) turn to machine translation to solve the problem of intercultural (or interstellar) communication:
- C-3PO, the gold protocol droid from Star Wars, is fluent in more than six million forms of communication.
- The Babel fish, a small leech-like parasite from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, infects its host’s brain and automatically translates all communication into a language its host can understand.
- The TARDIS, the police box time machine from Doctor Who, uses a telepathic field to translate most spoken and written languages into a language the pilot can understand.
Automatic translation is not limited to science fiction, however. Backed by the power of big data analytics and machine learning, machine translation is becoming a reality:
- In 1954, IBM’s Georgetown Experiment translated 60 Russian sentences into English.
- Limited computing power in the 1970's and 1980's slowed progress in many domains of artificial intelligence, including machine translation.
- In 2006, the first version of Google Translate was released.
- In 2010, Word Lens released their augmented reality app, which uses a smartphone’s camera to automatically translate signs in real-time. Word Lens was acquired by Google in 2014.
- In 2015, Skype moved beyond text translation, offering real-time automatic speech translation to their users.
- In early 2016, Waverly Labs released The Pilot, an earpiece with built-in speech recognition and translation capabilities, allowing users to translate any conversation anywhere.
Advances in machine learning and big data promise to turn many science fiction technologies into science fact. What other SciFi technologies do you hope to see soon?