Learning a foreign language is exceedingly difficult for many people, but digital technology is making modest translations of text and voice faster, easier, and more accessible. Machine translators (MT) have been around for years, but the level of availability and their quality continue to rise. They promise to cost-effectively unite the world even more than before with a variety of applications from tourism and social collaboration to business and politics.

What is changing?

Online, Babelfish was the first popular MT service, but Google Translate is currently leading the way by using statistical analysis to improve the contextual understanding of the MT. Plus, its browser integration in Firefox and Chrome allows instantaneous translation of webpages, and Google Translate went mobile in 2010 allowing Android customers to use their phones as translators when on the go. Another mobile app uses augmented reality technology to translate foreign language signs for tourists.

MTs are helping make the promises of big data solution providers a reality.

MT users are able to quickly and inexpensively gist (now being used as a verb: to learn the basic meaning) web-pages which helps with big data analytics for market research by extracting meaning and trends from the enormous supply of content on the web and with tracking security concerns by searching for specific terms and phrases in any language. MTs are helping make the promises of big data solution providers a reality. They also help organizations expand B2B and B2C communications, but perhaps more importantly, MTs make monitoring foreign language C2B and C2C communication more economically viable.

Microsoft recently announced a technology that goes one step further by allowing the user to train a device to translate the user’s speech with a digital simulation of the user’s own voice while maintaining the user’s intended emphasis and intonation. It could help language learners acclimate to a foreign language more easily and allow for translations that feel more personal—easing the natural pressure between speakers of different languages. For instance, a person in a foreign hospital could relax more easily if the MT used the doctor’s natural bedside manner. As MTs improve their accuracy and attempt to tackle linguistic nuance, such a technique could eventually enter the political realm allowing diplomats to communicate more genuinely or add a personal touch to business meetings and negotiations.

Machine translation is still very limited and human translators will always be necessary for editing purposes—already many language service providers use both machine and human translators to increase accuracy—as well as personal speech translators for more sensitive situations. However, as the machine translation industry, currently estimated between 2 and 8 billion USD, increases the applications of translation and attracts more investment, it will further drive the broader language services market, estimated at 30-40 billion USD and growing 7% annually. MTs could inspire a boost to the number of language learners while spurring need and growth in the size of the language services job market—an example where automation may actually lift employment.

Why is this important?

The ultimate goal of machine translation research appears to be a universal translator to allow speakers of any language to communicate as effectively as possible. Some believe this could happen by 2020, and the world may then rely less on a lingua franca like English and focus on fostering native tongues and local dialects. Although 2020 seems optimistic to some, Gartner’s Hype Cycle places MTs firmly on the Slope of Enlightenment, and the potential of this maturing market could be realized within the next decade.

MT users learn a different form of their own language both from the translations they consume and in trying to provide the machine with an easier to translate version of their intended meaning. MTs will in turn influence the users’ speech to other speakers of their own language, and machine translators could prompt a social change at a very fundamental level: how we communicate with each other. They could also open a wider portion of society to become more culturally sensitive and understanding allowing globalization to penetrate local cultures further. These devices are already opening the door to a broader demographic of the global population to inter-cultural exchanges, but the question remains whether machine translators will ease current relations or perhaps further strain them since they can both expand and cement racial stereotypes.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.