It was early 1954 when computer scientists, for the first time, publicly revealed a machine that could translate between human languages. It became known as the Georgetown-IBM experiment: an "electronic brain" that translated sentences from Russian into English.
The scientists believed a universal translator, once developed, would not only give Americans a security edge over the Soviets but also promote world peace by eliminating language barriers.
They also believed this kind of progress was just around the corner: Leon Dostert, the Georgetown language scholar who initiated the collaboration with IBM founder Thomas Watson, suggested that people might be able to use electronic translators to bridge several languages within five years, or even less.
The process proved far slower. (So slow, in fact, that about a decade later, funders of the research launched an investigation into its lack of progress.) And more than 60 years later, a true real-time universal translator — a la C-3PO from Star Wars or the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — is still the stuff of science fiction.
How far are we from one, really? Expert opinions vary. As with so many other areas of machine learning, it depends on how quickly computers can be trained to emulate human thinking.
Vikram Dendi says we're very close.
"It's cool to stand here and look back and say, 'We really turned science fiction into a reality,' " Dendi, the technical and strategy adviser to the chief of Microsoft Research, tells All Tech.
Microsoft's translation work has produced apps that can translate voice to voice and voice to text in addition to the familiar text to text. The big rollout this year was the Skype Translator, which takes what you say over video chat and turns it into spoken or written translations, currently in seven languages.
Microsoft, of course, is far from alone. A company called Voxox does Internet calling and chat and has a text-to-text translation service for its messaging app. Google, in addition to its familiar text translations, has introduced a feature in its Translate app that uses your phone camera to scan an image of foreign text and display the translation.
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