Could interpreters lose their jobs to a machine? Possibly, with Microsoft's new real-time translator for Skype conversations.
The beta software, called Skype Translator, has massive potential to bring the world together. Skype already has more than 300 million users clocking in around one trillion conversation minutes every month, but one persistent problem that has always prevented people from all over the world from truly connecting with one another is the language barrier. With Skype Translator, Microsoft is traversing into previously uncharted territories and could be bridging the gap other companies have tried to close but failed before.
In a demonstration introduced by Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella at the Re/code Code Conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes California Tuesday, Skype vice president Singh Pall and Microsoft employee Diana Heinrichs conducted an English-German call over Skype. The Translator would let one person finish speaking in his or her language before translating the words into the other person's chosen language. This way, both speakers can hear the other person speaking in their own language before hearing Skype Translator do the rest.
Nadella, who took over as Microsoft's head in February, says Microsoft has been working on machine translation for more than 15 years. Skype Translator, which is a product of Microsoft Research, is composed of three technologies: machine translation, speech recognition and speech synthesis, but the feature Nadella believes will make Skype Translator a viable commercial product is transfer learning.
"What happens is, say, you teach it English. It learns English. Then you teach it Mandarin. It learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English. And then you teach it Spanish. It gets good at Spanish, but it gets great at both Mandarin and English," he explains (video). "And quite frankly, none of us know exactly why. It's brain-like in the sense of its capabilities. It's magical. It is going to make sure you can communicate with anybody with the language barrier."
Reactions over the demonstration were mixed. Audience members noted that translation was quick, although one German-speaking member said the translation was good for vacations at best but was too spotty for business. Still, the software is in its early days and Microsoft acknowledges that there's a lot of room for improvement.
One of the areas Microsoft and Skype are working on is how to use the huge number of Skype calls to improve the translations. Singh believes this could possibly raise privacy issues, but said they are "working through that."
Microsoft plans to debut Skype Translator for Windows sometime this year with support for "a handful" of languages. It also hopes to launch versions for Apple's OS X and iOS. Skype Translator will be a standalone app for now, with plans to fully integrate it with Skype in the future.