If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you know that one of the most terrifying parts of travel is being surrounded by a language you don’t understand. Peter Lee, head of Microsoft Research, might be able to change all that (and drastically reduce the amount of time you spend furrowing your brows and squinting at that French menu). Lee and his team at Microsoft have created a software that can translate from language to language in real time, and he discusses it with us, along with other with up-and-coming technology that could change our lives.
Lee remembers that during one of the first demonstrations of the translation software, he was sitting in the audience at a Chinese school. As the speaker delivered his remarks in English, his words emerged from the loudspeaker in near-perfect Mandarin. “I looked at the team and of course they were all nervous,” he recalls. “But then I looked at the row behind them, which was the first row of these Chinese students. And they had tears streaming down their eyes.”
For now, the system is still in beta. Lee notes that the technology still has about a 7% error rate, meaning that about one in every 14 words or so translates incorrectly. But, as Lee points out, that’s just about as good as you would get with a human translator, even some of the most adept simultaneous translators employed by prestigious international organizations like the United Nations.