Are we approaching the moment in history when technology means we live in a real-world Babbel where we can all speak in our own native languages while understanding each other perfectly? Most of the attention around Google’s launch event on Wednesday this week was focused on the unveiling of two new Pixel smartphone models. However, it was the functionality of another new hardware product showcased at the event which may well prove to be more significant. Google’s new headphones, Pixel Buds, come with the claim they can translate in real time between 40 languages.
A live demonstration of a conversation in English and Swedish was arguably the highlight of the whole event. The audience were left both impressed and curious as to how the technology, that harnesses the sometime maligned Google Translate service, might impact international communication in future years. One side of the conversation delivered a sentence in English followed by the other in Swedish. At the end of each sentence the counterparty received a translation in their native tongue within 1 or 2 seconds. The presenters described the experience as like “having a personal translator by your side”.
The demonstration was achieved entirely over the internet without the need for any Google Translate database downloads, though that is possible for situations where mobile internet coverage might be limited or impractical.
The translation functionality is voice controlled and combines Google Translate with machine learning technology. Machine learning has hugely improved the quality of Google Translate over the years, ironing out many of the initial problems with the literal translations which gave rise to much of the previous skepticism around how useful the service really was.
The potential revealed by Pixel Bud’s translation functionality is genuinely exciting, finally achieving what science fiction and countless failed products have long promised. How it works with background noise in a real everyday environment isn’t clear and there will undoubtedly be imperfections in the first iterations of this product. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s demo showed that we can expect the days of negotiating the purchase of a holiday souvenir with frantic hand gestures to soon be a thing of the past. It’s not good news for translators though!
Other technology giants such as Microsoft, and smaller startups, are also working on translation services but it would appear that Google has beaten them to the punch. One limitation is that at least for now, the translation functionality of the Google Buds only works when they are paired with the Pixel 2 smartphone, also revealed on Wednesday.
While not a silver bullet that will immediately bring about world peace and prosperity, this technology clearly has exciting prospects for the future of international communication and that can surely only be a good thing.