The Universal Translator
MD1AssgnBlog Post on Identifying an Emerged Technology_Boseman_A_
In the 1960’s, the television program Star Trek sparked imaginations with future technology everyone dreamed of one day owning and using. Since it first appeared, several of the items shown or discussed on the program have made the jump from fiction to reality. NASA scientists had been working on ion engines which could power spaceflight to distant planets on a couple teaspoons of fuel. Phasers were the weapon of choice for Capt. Kirk, but since the first Gulf War the military has used something similar called a dazzler, which is a directed energy weapon that sends a pulse of electromagnetic radiation that stops an attacker in their tracks. However, one of the dozens of items I find most interesting is the universal translator.
From the first episodes when it looked like a fancy flashlight to the communicator badges with the Star Trek logo crew members wore on their left breast of their uniforms, everybody could instantly understand everyone else. Green gelatinous blobs spoke English almost as well as the early version of Data. Anyone who has ever traveled, worked, or studied in a foreign language could and would find such a device to be wonderful. But, has the technology made the jump?
Microsoft has a program/service, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/translator/apps.aspx, which covers some sixty languages with more being added. The program can be used on everything from a PC to a watch and both on- and off-line. It is a start and other companies like TalirApps at http://apps.talirapps.com/ are also working on the idea of bringing a universal translator forward. A look at what is out there, however, shows the device of Star Trek is far from what is available.
The key to the version used in Star Trek, Dr. Who, or any of the many science fiction shows, films, and books is the fundamental idea behind a universal translator. It all rests in the word ‘translator.’ For now, Microsoft, TalirApps, or Google, see the problem in how many languages of the more than 2,000 spoken on Earth their products/services can store or accommodate in the database. Where the ‘gee whiz’ portion of this should reside is in getting a device, which will really ‘translate,’ not just pull something from a language library. After all, when trekking around the galaxy, how do you converse with a being who has never heard or understood an Earth language?
While all of this may sound far-fetched, imagine if we could all understand each other and language differences would not be a barrier to learning, business, or advancing the human race? With a system built solely on ‘how many languages can be stuffed into a database,’ it makes things very limiting. If, however, the system could be developed that mirrored more the true Star Trek version of a universal translator, is made small and cheap enough for everyone to have one, and is merely an item worn much like a ring is, without second thought, this would be truly revolutionary.
The pitfalls are huge, but with time, perseverance, and suitable funding, such a device and system could be built. Do we have the technology today? Probably not, but if we don’t recognize that something can’t be done, it will probably be done.
The program needs to be written that will take sounds and move them along into languages for it to be a true universal translator, but it is nice to see someone is working on one. Now, if someone can just get on the flying cars we were promised in the 1950s that should have been available by the year 2000. (There is one flying car out there that might live up to the futurist’s hype and it can be seen at https://www.terrafugia.com/tf-x/.)
Thornburg, PhD, D. D. (2013). Current Trends in Educational Technology. Lake Barrington, IL. Retrieved from Thornburg Center for Space Exploration: http://www.tcse-k12.org