The iTunes Store and Android Market are chockfull of language translators (iTunes has more than 500)—many priced at more than $25 for translating from English to just one other language. But you need to consider just two: Google’s new free Google Translator and Jibbigo’s apps for Android and iOS. Both companies acknowledge these programs represent only stepping-off points toward Star Trek and Babel Fish-like instantaneous universal translation.
Both the Google Translator and Jibbigo apps use well-established statistical machine learning technology—also the basis of IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing Watson. Instead of programming in a lot of complex rules, the algorithms let the device “learn” from example. Google’s translation computers, for instance, have analyzed billions of documents that were already translated by humans, and scanned them for patterns. The rest is a matter of speech-recognition technology.
While the Google app performs as advertised, it may not be the best tool for actual conversation with a non-English speaker. For one thing, the process is clunky—you have to speak the phrase, then affirm that what you’ve spoken is correct, then have your phone “speak” the translated phrase to whomever you’re speaking. A bigger problem is that you need to be connected to the Internet and Google’s vast translation library for Google Translate to work, which adds a 5- to 10-second connection time between translations, all while racking up foreign roaming charges.
Jibbigo (a combination of “gibberish” and “on the go”) is more seamless and self-contained. You simply hold down the push-to-talk button, say what you need translated, let go of the button, and the app repeats what you said in the desired language. Hold the button down again, have your conversation partner reply in their language, let go of the button, and you hear your response in English. Simple and easy.
The proprietary machine translation from Jibbigo, and sound or phonemerecognition algorithms, were developed at Carnegie Mellon’s International Center for Advanced Communication, where Jibbigo’s founder, Alex Waibel, is the director. Jibbigo doesn’t require a web connection; each of the eight languages available ($4.99 to $27.99) has an onboard dictionary of about 40,000 words, most of which are travel- and medical-centric.
Jibbigo is working on other language translation gadgets, such as a heads-up display for glasses that overlays subtitles under the foreign speaker, and a system that uses a camera and OCR technology to translate local signs.
The goal for the last 20 to 30 years in the field of machine learning has been the Star Trek universal translator: language translation capabilities built into devices to render language differences moot. Given the speed of recent developments, universal translation could be just 5 to 10 years away.