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New in-ear device could be the beginning of a world without language barriers

From Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek to Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, anyone who spends much time forecasting the future comes to realize that language has simply got to go. In a connected world, it’s one of the only things remaining that truly separates us — it’s what keeps keeps us from being able to directly consume and understand one another’s film and literature, and what keeps occupying soldiers from being able to effectively make alliances with local peoples. It’s a primitive relic of a bygone age — if we can convert MP4 to AVI, certainly we ought to be able to convert Mandarin to German. Now, a new device called Pilot could make that dream (mostly) a reality.

A real-world Babelfish, or Universal Translator if you prefer, has been slow to materialize. We’ve got speech recognition, and we’ve got translation, and we’ve even got both of those things in real-time in some very specific cases, but a portable, near-real-time translation device that moves with you? Despite rumors of GoogleX super-projects, it hasn’t happened yet.

One big reason is that real-time translation is hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that all the advancement in computing power we’ve seen in the past 20 years did little to get us closer to the goal. It took a revolution in how we compute information, the influx of neural network models and machine learning algorithms, before we could crunch natural language and produce a translation in a reasonable amount of time — but there’s still a problem. Neural networks are themselves very hard to run, meaning we need a super-computer to do translation.

pilot translator 2In the context of a wearable, that means you’ll probably need an always-on data connection, which itself means you’ll need a subscription and a hefty power supply to keep the connection going all day. Pilot gets around this by wirelessly accessing your cell phone’s processor to do the work locally; prior on-phone translation services have been imperfect, but Pilot claims to have reached true real-time speeds.

What this does to your cellphone’s battery is anybody’s guess, but I’d bet this sort of intensive crunching would burn through even giant Galaxy S-series batteries in a short time. It’s not exactly living “untethered” if you have to plug your phone in every 45 minutes, but sci-fi beggars can’t be choosers, and the early adopters who buy one of these for a cool $300 will still be able to feel like they’re legitimately at the forefront of a tech revolution.

The other problem that has held back universal translators is that making one is a complex challenge many practical concerns. Do you turn it on only when you need it, and if so aren’t you going to miss a lot of the unexpected banter that you’d want to hear? How does it know who you’re talking to, in a crowded room full of people speaking? How does it fit on my damn head?

Pilot gets around these problems by splitting the service into two pieces. It’s not actually an earpiece, but two earpieces. When you’ve decided you want to talk to somebody (like the dreamy French girl who allegedly inspired this thing), you simply hand them their ear-piece to begin talking. Each of you now has a translator, so you can both understand one another — this takes the place of any sort of speaker that most sci-fi translators use to say our words out loud.

So, it’s not quite a “put it in your ear and it’s like everyone’s speaking English” super-invention, and since this came out of an indiegogo campaign, you wouldn’t really expect it to. But it is incredibly ambitious, and it could spark existing translation efforts from Skype (Microsoft) and Google to shoot a little higher, a little faster.

Consumer-level wearable real-time translation could be one of the most disruptive technologies in recent memory, breaking down old cultural barriers, accelerating globalization, and, yes, letting you talk to French girls. It can’t come fast enough.

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