Is Google going to make Douglas Adams’ Babel fish a reality?

29 Jul 2013

Babel fish animated by Rod Lord (via BBC Cult)

The great sci-fi writers have forecast, inspired and sometimes influenced some of the technology we rely on today and now it looks like Google has set its sights on turning the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a real device.

Though the Babel fish of H2G2 is actually a small yellow creature inserted into the ear, Google’s creation will be technology incorporated into Android smartphones that will turn them into universal translators.

An article in The Times revealed Google’s plans to turn smartphones into real-time translation devices that will allow people speaking different languages to understand phone calls from one another and also provide real-time translation in face-to-face discussions.

In the paywall-protected article, Android vice-president Hugo Barra claims recent tests of the system provided “near perfect” results with certain languages, such as English and Portuguese, in controlled environments. Barra also says that tons of prototypes using this technology are in development.

Google Translate is currently available on the web and on mobile through apps for Android and iOS. This service can translate more than 70 languages and more will be added over time. Speech input was introduced in 2011 and, as of last week, handwriting input is also available.

The challenge for this new translate service will be interpreting the variations of syntax from language to language, and generating accurate translations seconds after speakers have finished talking.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic