The embedded Babel fish is (almost) upon us -

The embedded Babel fish is (almost) upon us

We certainly do live in interesting times. A couple of weeks ago I was having my mind boggled at the Embedded Vision Summit (see Day 1 and Day 2); now I discover that embedded speech may be poised to take a giant leap forward.

I don’t know about you, but like most English people I'm pathetic when it comes to speaking other languages. This is one of those things a really, really wish I could do, but I just don’t have the “ear” for it. If someone from another country asks me to say something in their language, when I do so they say “No, say it this way.” So I try again, and we bounce back and forth on the same word, but I can’t hear where I'm going wrong.

This used to happen to me a lot when I first moved to the USA. I would go to the supermarket and ask the location of the bottled water, and whoever I was talking to would say “Bottled what?” And I would repeat “water” and they would continue to look baffled. Time after time I would be reduced to saying something like “When you are at the kitchen sink and you turn the faucet on, this liquid comes out of it — this is the liquid I want you to sell me in a bottle.” And they would say “Oh, you mean water!” And I would scream “Yes, water!” And they would say “What?”

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. In Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein, our hero Matt Dodson learns Venusian while in an induced hypnotic sleep state. Similarly, in Eon by Greg Bear, one of the characters goes into a futuristic library and learns to read and speak “Russian like a native Muscovite” in just a couple of hours.

An alternative scenario is the Babel fish — a universal translator that neatly crosses the language divide between any species — postulated by the late, great Douglas Adams in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy :

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The reason I'm waffling on about this here is that it appears that the embedded equivalent of the Babel fish may soon be upon us. On May 25 (tomorrow as I pen these words), a small New York City-based startup company called Waverly Labs will be launching their Pilot Indiegogo Project. As you can see in this video, the Pilot is an earpiece that provides its wearer with a real-time translation of the spoken word in the selected language.

As far as I can work out, the Pilot operates in conjunction with an app running on a smartphone or tablet. I'm guessing that the Pilot communicates with the smartphone/tablet via Bluetooth. I'm not sure if the app performs the translation locally or in the cloud.

Since the Pilot hasn’t actually come out yet, I'm trying to restrain my expectations. On the other hand, I can’t stop myself from thinking how cool it would be if everyone were wearing one of these little rascals, thereby allowing us all to communicate with each other without having to speak slowly and loudly and wave our hands around a lot. Who knows, one day I might even be able to go to my local supermarket and ask for bottled water without ending up being treated like a village idiot.

20 thoughts on “The embedded Babel fish is (almost) upon us

  1. “I really hope they're able to pull this off. nI found a couple of bits of information about it:nBoth parties have to have earpiecesnIt doesn't work offline for now, but they're working on it.nThe translation **appears** to be happening in the earpiece

    Log in to Reply
  2. “There's been a translation site called on the net for yonks. It never was particularly good but I have not tried it recently. And then there is Google translate, which does pretty much what Max is talking about, and works on tablets or pho

    Log in to Reply
  3. “This is moderately cool (assuming it is implemented better than Google Translate, which is most useful for cracking up those who have a decent grasp of both languages). Now, for the REAL world, I would expect based on precedent one would have to not only

    Log in to Reply
  4. “@David: I have an entire bookshelf filled with language dictionaries, including a couple of Langenscheidts (one English-German, the other English-Polish), one Larrouse (English-French of course), a couple of Hebrew-English one, the definitive English-Yid

    Log in to Reply
  5. “”I do French to English translations for a magazine…”nnIs there no end to the suffering you are prepared to inflict on others? LOL”

    Log in to Reply
  6. “@SuperSkeptic…and did your father (and you?) speak all these languages? I'm impressed…nnI can speak reasonable French, make myself understood in Afrikaans (South Africa) and say G'day in a few others. I'm trying to learn Italian at the moment but

    Log in to Reply
  7. “Are you implying that they should produce a “Tech Guru” to “Mere nMortal” translation?n(I'm not saying who should be at which end to preserve my dignity) “

    Log in to Reply
  8. “”I can speak reasonable French, make myself understood in Afrikaans (South Africa) and say G'day in a few others.”nnGood on you cobber!”

    Log in to Reply
  9. “On one of my recent visits to Washington DC we decided to take a bus tour. The person narrating the tour spoke English of course, but some of the riders did not, and therefore had to rely on their companion to translate. Think of all the profit the tour c

    Log in to Reply
  10. “”The person narrating the tour spoke English of course, but some of the riders did not…”nnThe opposite to taking a taxi then LOL”

    Log in to Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.