Google’s revealed it’s working on extensions to its smartphone voice-control powers, debuted in the Nexus One, that’ll automatically translate between languages. It’s the stuff of pure utopian science fiction. But is it a good idea?
Google’s plans are to enhance the remote server-processed speech recognition systems in the Nexus One to include automatic, fast and accurate machine translation between languages, with a synthetic voice output.
Sci-fi fans will of course immediately associate this idea with two classics of the genre: The Star Trek Universal Translator (a handy way of explaining away different language issues between alien races) and the Babel Fish, fabulous creation from the mind behind The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Both things essentially do the same task–they automatically translate what other people say to a person in alien tongues into their own language, and do the same back when the user speaks aloud. To this end, they are absolutely the same in concept as Google’s translator phone.
And though this sounds like an insanely useful idea, the cultural impact could be absolutely shocking. For example, if Google’s device succeeds, and is useful and ubiquitous (in other words, nearly everyone ends up using it, or a competing service)–nobody would need learn a foreign language. “Hooray!” you may be thinking, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because language plays such a fundamental part in connecting each of us as thinking creatures with the world around us, that the subtle nuances of language (which are different even in similar tongues, say the Latin-derived Spanish and Portuguese) actually shape how we think about the world. Learning something of how somebody else speaks from a foreign country actually helps you to understand their mindset a little. And if the average Joe on the street never learns a foreign language anymore (because it’s a very tricky thing to do, and Google’s just doing it for you, so why bother?) then that subtle understanding will be lost.
But in the Babel Fish itself is the biggest warning. As Adams wrote, as well as being “probably the oddest thing in the Universe” the “poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” Of course Adams invention is fictional, but he was a keen observer of the human condition, and we should ask the question “Is mankind ready for Google’s invention?” What will happen when the first manslaughter case occurs as the result of a mis-translation from one of Google’s devices? Will we learn more about what’s going on around us when abroad on holiday than is actually good for our souls? And so on.
I’m not against the idea, but I think you should at least consider the value in language barriers and the hard work it takes to get over them. You can bet that the big-players in semantics, linguistics and international relations will weigh in on this news pretty fast, and that the debate will be incredibly charged and complex. It may even be suggested that Google cannot technically achieve its goal. But if anyone has vast amounts of cloud-based computing power available, and a suite of experts able to program them into clever pattern recognition and processing, it’s Google. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google rolling out a limited version of this service inside a year or two, on the Nexus Three, say, and then we’ll just have to see how well a globally-chatty population works out.