Facebook Pushes Frontier of Real-Time Translation

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print

Big implications for businesses as the social networking service moves closer to an ancient goal.

The ability to communicate with ease across languages and cultures has so far been the stuff of futurists and science fiction writers. But rapid advances in machine translation technology are now putting the concept within reach of the masses.

Already, services such as Google Translate and Babel Fish do a reasonably good job of approximating language translations for Web pages, e-mails and Twitter Tweets. Businesses too are getting into the act. Salim Roukos, senior manager for Multinational Language Technologies at IBM, says that $15 billion is spent on translation annually. Heavy users include publishers, law firms and organizations involved in international commerce.

The most recent—and potentially significant—development in the rapidly-advancing field emanates from Facebook, which reportedly is testing an instant translation service that lets its 750 million users click a “Translate” button next to comments written in Swedish, Swahili or just about any other language and have them appear in the language they've chosen for their own account. 

The ramifications are significant. “Most users are not currently communicating much with people who speak other languages, simply because they can’t understand each other,” says Eric Eldon, who operates the "Inside Facebook" blog. “There are some potentially very big use cases here.” Among them: businesses looking to expand their international reach and page owners, including popular international stars, who could suddenly view comments from around the world.

Expect big changes over the next few years. Today, the best machine translation systems boast accuracy rates just above 90 percent when they’re used with textbook speech. The figure could soon top 95 percent as algorithms improve. In addition, Google and others are developing image-to-text and image-to-speech translation systems that allow a person to snap a photo of a sign or text and receive an instant translation.

Says Kevin Knight, senior research scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California and a leading expert on machine translation technology: “Instantaneous and automated translation would have a profound effect on global communications.”

This article was originally published on 2011-09-07
Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.
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