At an emerging industries and innovation conference in Shanghai earlier this year, the company iFlytek Co. got into some trouble for suggesting that their AI technology was providing instantaneous translations for speakers at the conference. It was discovered that in fact, the AI system was simply reading a translation previously completed by a human translator.
The push in recent years for a real-life Babel Fish (the imaginary creature from Doulas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which instantly translates any language in the universe) has seen some great innovation and improvement in the industry. Every year AI and voice-recognition systems are improving in leaps and bounds to provide more accurate, and fluent translations, but they still have a long way to go.
In the coming years it is not likely that human translators or interpreters will see their jobs threatened by this technology. The issue is that language is very flexible, dependent on context, cultural references, tone, and more. At the moment, this is too much for AI and computer programming to keep up with, and even human interpreters can only work for 20-30 minutes at a time.
We can only guess at what the future may hold in terms of language translation devices. Someday perhaps it is likely that we will all be able to communicate with the help of an earphone listening and translating whatever we say, just not yet.