Microsoft’s ‘Star Trek’ Skype translator turns English into Spanish

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Microsoft has released its first preview of Skype Translator, which allows real-time conversations between spoken English and Spanish and will be extended to more languages.

The service was first demonstrated in May, aping Star Trek’s universal translator or the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, translating a conversation between German and English.

It is now available as a free download for Windows 8.1, starting with spoken English and Spanish along with more than 40 text-based languages for instant messaging.

Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president of Skype and Lync, said in a blog post that Skype Translator would “open up endless possibilities”, adding: “Skype Translator relies on machine learning, which means that the more the technology is used, the smarter it gets. We are starting with English and Spanish, and as more people use the Skype Translator preview with these languages, the quality will continually improve.”

Users can sign up for the preview to try the service, but only if they are using the latest version of Windows.

A demonstration of Skype Translate in the classrooms of American and Mexican children.

Skype Translator is part of Microsoft’s artificial intelligence research relying on machine learning and deep neural networks, much like Google and Apple’s voice assistants. It can understand speech and then rapidly translate it into another language before using text-to-speech systems to speak the translation back to the user, or in this case the other party.

Microsoft hopes that the system will break down language barriers, although the accuracy of its translation will be vital if it is to be relied upon to speak in a foreign language.

The more people use the preview the more data the Skype team will have to improve the translation.

“Skype Translator records conversations in order to analyse the scripts and train the system to better learn each language,” explained Mo Ladha and Chris Wendt, two of Microsoft’s research managers in a blog post. “Participants are all clearly notified as the call begins that their conversation will be recorded and used to improve the quality of Microsoft’s translation and voice recognition services.”

The calls are broken down into small snippets, anonymised and stored on Microsoft’s servers to feed into the statistical models that help improve word matching.

Science fiction has long promised seamless translation between languages, removing barriers between nations and species. Skype Translator is the first piece of technology that begins to get close to a “universal translator”, although video calling is unlikely to help travellers on their holidays anytime soon.

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Powered by article was written by Samuel Gibbs, for on Tuesday 16th December 2014 11.42 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010