Skype is about to get way cooler with its real-time translator tool. Microsoft, which owns Skype, is expected to introduce a beta version of its translator tool before the end of this year. It is still early days for interpreters to feel threatened but if this app pans out the way Microsoft envisages, then pretty soon they will have to look for other skills. To be able to communicate with someone in your mother tongue or a language you are most comfortable has an extraordinary value in human discourse. With this app Microsoft could fundamentally transform the way the world communicates. Of course, the danger of losing the essence or nuance in translation is something they will have to ensure.
Speech recognition is a relatively new science but it has made considerable strides in recent years. If Skype translator app does indeed do what it promises to, then we are on the verge of a revolution. After buying Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion this app is by far the biggest value addition to that rather expensive acquisition. Its potential is obvious but it is not yet clear how Microsoft proposes to monetize it. Given its track record, I am sure they will find a way to recoup the investment it has made on speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for quite some time now.
Driving the new app, apart from Microsoft’s Indian-origin CEO Satya Nadella, is a fellow Indian-origin professional called Gurdeep Pall, who is the corporate vice president of Skype. During the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Nadella spoke about how the company has built a “deep neural net” in order to achieve a level of finesse not seen before. That sounds like sci-fi and some might even think it has the potential to facilitate technology gradually upending humans. Nadella spoke about “transfer learning” where while learning two languages how it becomes better at one and as it goes along learning more languages it improves its command over the languages learned before. In short every new language it learns, it also improves the ones before that. That can be either magical, as Nadella puts it, or scary as some others might think in the way HAL 9000 of ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ became. Nadella says that transfer learning makes the app “brain-like.” There may be an element of hype there but even with that the potential is obvious.
There will be those who would paint apocalyptic visions of a combination of such intelligent apps taking over the world. It could well happen and if it does, well, so be it. Who said humans are guaranteed primacy on this planet in perpetuity? We are obviously the only species capable of making ourselves redundant and feel greatly excited about it.