Language Technologies from Science Fiction to Real World

LT-from-scifi-to-realityHuman beings are contradictory. On one hand we prefer staying in the comfort zone and keep things stable. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? On the other hand we are masters at imagining how the future might look like. Mostly these future visions include high-tech innovations and incredible machines. Language technologies (LT) also have had a significant role in many of these visions.

Future interests people. The history of literature and cinema is full of future visions. It even has its own category: science fiction.

quoteScience fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology. – – – Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”. (WIKIPEDIA)

Science fiction has introduced us many ideas on how LT could revolutionize the world we’re living in. For example, universal translator is one of the most classic sci-fi movie gadgets. This piece of technology makes it possible to communicate with every creature that you meet. It always works impeccably no matter in which galaxy you are traveling or how rare language your opponent speaks. The universal translator always recognizes all languages immediately. In the fiction world, many space wars have been avoided due to a piece of LT that makes it possible to understand strangers. What a great vision!

Unfortunately, visions, theory and practice are still far from each others. We’re still waiting for the first flying car or teleport. 3D printers and body-borne computers we already have. Likewise, language and translation technologies are developed actively. Often, new LTs are developed in controlled and limited environments. The current weakness of existing LTs is that they don’t fit into real-life situations well enough. The separate development of speech recognition, machine translation, text synthesis and other LT technologies slows down the breakthrough. Combinations of many different technologies, like SIRI, are so far proved to be most usable LT applications.

LT has many possibilities. Speech transcription, machine translation and text synthesis differ from teleportation by being actually feasible. It’s not easy to translate spoken languages into the computer world but it isn’t impossible either. Language technologies’ biggest challenge is to decode languages into rules and logic. I would argue that changing the laws of physics, like repealing the law of gravity or transferring matter from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them, is in a completely different category.

The need for those sci-fi LT solutions is becoming bigger all the time. Currently, it seems that everyone speaks English, but English as a lingua franca is a very new (and momentary?) phenomenon. Through history, the economical and political power has changed which languages are valuable or important. Today, language is a differentiator and certain national pride is increasing all around the world. People already value brands that have authenticity. When everything and anything is only a few clicks away, it is possible that people will start using and appreciating their own languages more.

It is likely that LT will become more usable first in personal, one-to-one communication. Like when you are asking information from a local resident when visiting a new city. Or when contacting a foreign sales person. Or when replying to a foreign tweet or message in social media. Although the quality of LT isn’t perfect yet, there will probably be fewer misunderstandings than with pure body and sign language. Furthermore, LT could encourage people to communicate more, just like the universal translator does in sci-fi films.

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