Friday, May 1, 2015

Real-time machine translation of voice messages

On Monday, Harry Shum, the Microsoft executive vice president who oversees the research operation, was bursting with pride while demonstrating Skype Translator, a new product that incorporates years of work by researchers to convert voice conversations from one language to another in real time.

Mr. Shum gamely agreed to conduct a portion of an interview using Skype Translator. Mr. Shum sat in his office, and I sat in a conference room down the hall looking at Mr. Shum’s face on a computer screen. I asked questions in English, and Mr. Shum responded in Mandarin, his native tongue. He answered a question in Mandarin about the impact he says Skype Translator can have, and the software spit out an English transcript and synthesized recording seconds later.

The software made mistakes — Skype transcribed his name as “Hairy” — but it got the point across. “Today we have a lot of obstacles of communication,” Mr. Shum said, according to the Skype translation. “Because we speak a different language, you speak English, I speak Chinese, if we are not able to understand the two sides, the world would have a lot of problems.”

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