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'Tower of Babel' Translator Under Development 220

monopole writes "The BBC is reporting on a bilingual translator under development by Carnegie Mellon University which senses sub-vocalized speech, recognizes it, translates it and then synthesizes the translation. The overall effect would be to dub the speech of the speaker."
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'Tower of Babel' Translator Under Development

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  • by chowdy ( 992689 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @12:38AM (#16589128)
    The Tower of Babel Translator is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Tower of Babel Translator in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Tower of Babel Translator.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by buswolley ( 591500 )
      I'd love to have the president wear the translator so we'd know if he believes the bull too.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by WoLpH ( 699064 )
      We already have something like that, right?
      It's called a universal translator []
    • Continued.. (Score:3, Funny)

      by lobotomir ( 882610 )
      The Tower of Babel Translator, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by blippy ( 844130 )

      The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Tower of Babel Translator in your ear

      No, no, you're thinking of a babelfish. The Tower has to be inserted up a completely different orifice.

  • Other Languages (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Longfinger ( 568282 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @12:42AM (#16589152)
    If this technology gets good enough, none of us would ever need to learn a second language. That would be a bad thing, right?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      If this technology gets good enough, none of us would ever need to learn a second language. That would be a bad thing, right?

      I think that's kind of like saying that if calculators get good enough, no one needs to know math anymore.

      In fact, this will probably be used in many of the same places - anywhere you'd find a cash register, you'll probably find automated translaters. You won't see them used in academia or in diplomacy, though.

    • by eean ( 177028 ) < minus threevowels> on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:10AM (#16589392) Homepage
      Don't worry, they've been working on machine translation since the 60s and fully automatic translation still sucks. Speech to text isn't so great either.

      Language is complicated!
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Ougarou ( 976289 )
        Nope, ain't going to happen.

        Professor Schultz said: "The idea is that you can mouth words in English and they will come out in Chinese or another language."

        He must know that language is more then just words, there is grammer to. Then there is a story line, context, etc. etc. Let alone the fact that most people don't finish their sentence when they are having a conversation (tape a conversation and check it).
        And for those experts who said: it showed the technology was "within reach". Stop calling yoursel

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by schon ( 31600 )
          language is more then just words, there is grammer to.

          Ther si alos speeling (which you might want to work at improving, considering you misspelled two words under five letters each.)
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      This could be a terrible thing. Learning another language teaches you a lot about a way a culture thinks.
    • by nebaz ( 453974 )
      Why would this be a bad thing? I'm all for diversity of culture, but experiencing that diversity would be much easier if we all understood each other.
      • Re:Other Languages (Score:5, Interesting)

        by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:43AM (#16589594) Homepage Journal
        But doesn't the language itself play a part in the culture? Almost any language you look at there are bound to be words that don't translate well because the object or action or emotion in question is so innately bound to the culture that they made a word for it, but to other cultures the concept isn't all that common so they never made a word for it.

        Also, even translation by the best humans still destroys a lot of the subtlety and beauty in a language. It's a best a piecemeal game. Hell, most novels/tv shows are not even translated literally, some artistic liberty is usually taken to make the work "flow" in the language it is being translated into. Translation is great for contracts or technical documents, but if you really want to understand a culture then you need to learn its language.
        • Translation is great for contracts or technical documents, but if you really want to understand a culture then you need to learn its language.

          What if you don't want to understand a culture, just understand what someone's saying? Unless you're going to speak it for the rest of your life, learning a language is pointless, as you'll just forget it.
          • Re:Other Languages (Score:4, Informative)

            by Shaper_pmp ( 825142 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @08:16AM (#16591480)
            You can't fully understand what someone's saying unless you understand their cultural context, and how it differs from your own.

            For example, what's the difference in (UK) English between: "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less"? In US English they're used interchangably, but in UK English they're opposites. There are many such words or phrases in the English language alone where the precise word chosen (or connotations of a word) totally changes the meaning of the entire phrase, even reversing it's meaning.

            Another example would be a simple phrase in US English like "he was pissed"? US meaning is "he was angry". In UK English it means "he was drunk", and a word-for-word translation into greek it would be meaningless (the equivalent idiom in Greek would be something like "he took it on the skull").

            Seriously - if you ever want to understand the drawback to automatic translation, try getting two Greek friends to talk colloquially to you, but translating each individual word into English - it's completely unintelligible.
            • You make a really great point, but it's not entirely the one you were trying to make ;-)

              In Canadian English(TM) "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less" are used interchangeably as well. "He was pissed" means both, though. And that, I think, is the massive stumbling block in any automatic translator: Language tends to be situationally dependent. If you go to your average Canadian and, with no context, say "Man, was Frank ever pissed last night", he'll likely assume that you meant drunk, because of th

            • what's the difference in (UK) English between: "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less"? In US English they're used interchangably

              I think there are two types of people: Those that use language soely as a collection of sounds, and those who think about the actual meanings of the actual words they use.

              I consider the first group to be, on average, dumber than the second. And they are the only ones who say "could care less." So, while you say they are used interchangably in the US, this is only done by th

        • translation by the best humans still destroys a lot of the subtlety and beauty in a language

          Moving in to homes destroyed the subtlety and beauty of cave-dwelling. I don't see you living in a cafe.
      • "The Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
      • Well, the problem is that understanding someone is far more than parsing the other's sentences. It's getting to the point where you understand what meaning the other intended to convey. That's here all this machine translation still fails (and probably will fail for a long time to come). Because for that you need a lot of backround knowledge, you actually have to attune yourself to the experiences, the culture of the other. And that is a large part of what is learnt in a foreign language course.

        All this a

        • A good way to test this are jokes, because they are such a condensed way of cultural meaning.

          Here's another good one: insults/cursewords.

          English ones tend to be based around sex; eg. Go fuck yourself. Fuck off you stupid cocksucker, etc...

          French ones involve the church and shit; eg. Chrisse de tabarnac osti (a particularly nasty curse phrase... guaranteed to turn heads even amongst rough company, literally translates to "Christ, tabernacle, host") or mange la marde mon osti de chien salle (again, a pre

    • Re:Other Languages (Score:5, Interesting)

      by kfg ( 145172 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:38AM (#16589568)
      Language is not composed of words. It is composed of idiomatic phrases (idiomatic phrases do not mean what the words mean) only understandable in context. True automatic translation is not possible.

      As an example, I was once called upon to translate the simple advertising slogan "Si Misura" from Italian to English. This had already been translated as "Made to Measure."

      Quick, without thinking, tell me what the product was?

      If you're a native English speaker you probably think of a suit or dress. Maybe a kitchen cabinet. Some tool with human ergonomic requirements.

      The product was a liquid chemical compound, so I translated it into the correct English idiom for such; "Custom Blended."

      And with that simple example we haven't even touched on issues of syntax yet; or more complicated issues of social usage (say formal vs. informal forms).

      • This had already been translated as "Made to Measure."... If you're a native English speaker you probably think of a suit or dress. Maybe a kitchen cabinet. Some tool with human ergonomic requirements.

        Unless you're a /. nerd, in which case you probably think of a pill or a pump
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AhtirTano ( 638534 )

        Language is not composed of words. It is composed of idiomatic phrases (idiomatic phrases do not mean what the words mean) only understandable in context.

        That's like saying humans aren't composed of cells. We are composed of organs who's functions are not useful in isolation. Idioms are composed of words, and the words are vital. Just like an organ will cease to work if you change the component cells, the idiom will cease to mean what you want it to if you change the component words.

        True automatic tran

      • True automatic translation is not possible.
        "True" is your trump card there. (I'm not so sure "true" tranlation is possible at all, even by a human translator.) But they may very well achieve a level of performance which is useful, which is all that matters.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by ashooner ( 834246 )
        What about the fundamental issue of grammar? How is a (subject)(verb)(object) language going o be translated live into a (subject)(object)(verb) language? Or the old "The man bites the dog" example from introductory german class. Perhaps this can be done, but there is going to have to be some temporal caching...
      • True automatic translation is not possible.

        Like almost everyone else who has said " not possible" before you throughout history, you are wrong.

        Suppose there are a finite number of idiomatic phrases, and database space is cheap enough to be effectively free.

        Someone could compile a database of all idiomatic phrases and simply map between them in any two languages.

        I think the real reason translation hasn't taken off yet is because people keep trying to come up wiht better algorithms, when what they really

    • by JuzzFunky ( 796384 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:47AM (#16589620)
      Second Language? You might not even have to larn a first language! Just grunt. Mm.
    • Re:Other Languages (Score:5, Insightful)

      by brian.glanz ( 849625 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @02:15AM (#16589798) Homepage Journal

      There are practical advantages in problem solving which have been tied to the language used in mental formulation, for example the development of what is metaphorically called "logical circuitry" has been shown to diverge between native English and Mandarin Chinese speakers [].

      My expectation is that spoken language will eventually go the way of handwriting: creature comfort, dying art, what once defined the best of us but becomes in many cases an indulgent inefficiency. How?

      Anybody who dares to at this point, has realized they can jam wires into the human brain and let it learn to control machines on the other end. It's already beyond that in fact, with embedded communication devices being the next step, stepping shoe now currently in air: you'll see in a few days in Nature how real the "Neurochip" [] already is.

      People should stop pretending this is about helping paraplegics by playing Space Invaders or moving a cursor with mind control, or that we're only trying to help brain injury, stroke, or paralysis patients. This is about construction workers with better than human strength in their better than human limbs. We drive vehicles through obstacles on land at 10 times the speed human beings can run, and we fly vehicles at 800 times the speed we can biologically move ourselves. We are mentally capable of managing bodily abilities far beyond those with which we are born.

      This is not only about helping the disabled, and it's not only about incredible speeds or strengths. It's also about perfectly able people who would rather control personal electronics with their thoughts than search for or decipher other remote control electronics. Personal electronics are going to be a lot more personal, too; these people will eventually prefer to have personal electronics embedded in their bodies and networked with their minds.

      Don't worry about losing human language: we will only lose it when we'll be better off for it, when we communicate and think better without it. The translator here, with IBM and elsewhere is of course more narrowly focused, but with this we are converging on technological telepathy and obsoleting human language.

      Human logic and good intentions have come at it from a more traditional, less technological direction, giving us Esperanto [], Loglan [], Lojban [], etc. You've probably heard of only one of these, which you probably laughed at somebody for being Geek enough to know any of. Most of them have been great ideas and well executed, but despite inherent gains in efficiency or intellectual force they are nowhere near the markets and their returns depend on mass adoption. Technology is different, it's tied directly to markets and to private profiteering with immediate amplification of wealth among the wealthy. Human beings are not going to create a better enough language, soon enough, before we create a technology which in itself superior to all human language. BG

    • This translator wouldn't help in written communication, and perhaps not even over telephone due to the crappy input quality. So the severe limitations that would imply in at least business relations would be so bad that you'd still need to know the language.

      This could be nice for the occasional trips to other countries or if you have some friends/relatives in another country where you for that sake don't want to learn their language. But in both these cases, you usually don't know their language today eithe
    • by suv4x4 ( 956391 )
      If this technology gets good enough, none of us would ever need to learn a second language. That would be a bad thing, right?

      I wouldn't worry about it. Our speech and phrasing ability, languages: they are not something you can isolate and reproduce in a program, without reproducing much of the rest of the intelligence of a human being.

      Subtle phrasing, context.. We learn new ways to express ourselves all the time, and we can do so since we put what we hear to an intelligent analysis and processing. A compute
    • by klang ( 27062 )
      Spanish in Mexico is different from Spanish in Spain. English in America is different from English in Great Britan.

      This is "the context" of the language, the part of the language that can only be translated, if you have intimite first hand knowledge of the two languages you whish to translate between. Basically, you have to know what moves in a society to truely understand the language.

      Learning a second language is one thing, using it and understanding "the context" is something else and I think that a maki
    • by AlecC ( 512609 )
      Fine - provided you are willing to be limited to a vocabulary of 100-200 words, according to TFA.

      Speech recognition for limited vocabularies has worked quite well for a long time, but quud quality real speech recognition is still over the horizon.I think this will go the same way.
    • Which is unfortunate. As a trilingual person (I guess you could add a dozen or more if counted computer languages) I have gained quite a richness of life and human understanding from learning another's language. There are many idomatic expressions that may seem a little funny initially, but after some thought, really seem to make you look at the world in a different way.

      For example, in the Mayan language K'ekchi' [], the term "Ma cuan sa' a ch'ol xbanunquil _________?", literial translates to mean Is it in

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 26, 2006 @12:42AM (#16589158)
    chinese people can now speak like poorly dubbed kung-fu movies in real life!
  • subvocalization (Score:5, Informative)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @12:42AM (#16589164) Journal []

    Subvocalization is basically micro-movements of the muscles associated with speech. The Wikipedia article mostly focuses on reading & subvocalization, so I wonder, do you have to be trained to do it consciously? nition []

    This wikipedia article says that recognition is hard.
  • we are that much closer to the future.
  • by Joebert ( 946227 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @12:49AM (#16589230) Homepage
    Electrodes are attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as the person silently mouths words and phrases.

    It's only a matter of time before this thing gets me fired.
  • Once this technology gets finalized and then made tiny we can implant them in our ears.
    Of course we'd have to avoid any and all Theta radiation or they'd start malfunctioning. I don't know about you guys but when Rom was trying to find the reset button on Nog's translator implant during episode #77 of DS9 it looked pretty painful.
  • by richdun ( 672214 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:01AM (#16589334)
    So let's say this works - which language will we use as a primary one now that it doesn't matter, since everyone can understand everyone else easily?

    Anyone who has studied languages knows (not "no"s or "nose") that English absolutely sucks (as in is bad, not as in pulls air into itself), but we use it widely (as in across a large range of people and places, not as in having a large girth) in large part (as in a significant reason, not as in being a big piece of something) due to the primary sources of finance and technology being in English-speaking countries (not literally the countries, but their people).

    I like the idea, and see the huge, positive social impact it could have, but I feel sorry for the guy/gal responsible for it to test its ability to translate into/out of English.
    • by davidsyes ( 765062 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:16AM (#16589436) Homepage Journal
      Aw (not as in awe-struck...) shucks (not as in stripping corn stalks) you're such cunning linguist....
    • by jbrader ( 697703 )
      Here in America we always hear how lucky we are to be native English speakers because it's such a difficult language, but I've talked to numerous people from Russia, China, the Netherlands, Mexico, Germany and France and they all told me it was fairly easy.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by awol ( 98751 )
        I am a native English speaker (well Australian anyway). Members of my familiy have taught ESL (English as a Second Language) to adults and children. Friends of mine are speech therapists. For the last 15 years I have been doing business with people who have English as their second language.

        English is trivial to learn well enough to communicate. The reason? You only really need to learn vocabulary. All the points raised previously about the difficulty of automatic translation are kind of true but, for Englis
    • by AhtirTano ( 638534 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @02:09AM (#16589768)

      Sorry to say, English is not as unusual as you would like to believe. (I am a linguist.)

      In many ways, English is quite simple. For example, our word order is very straightforward. I work with a language were the following is a normal sentence: "This is city New called York here." (This city here is called New York.) In fact, almost every permutation of those words would be valid without a change in the basic meaning (as long as "is" is the second word). This is a so-called non-configurational [] language. Parsing English is easy by comparison.

      I work with another language were there is a slight stress difference between the sentences "That might be true" and "He's honestly picking his butt." The words "soup" and "shit" are differentiated by a 40-50% increase in the length of the last vowel. There is one word for both "blue" and "green", and another word for "yellow", "orange", and "brown".

      As to the likelihood of this project succeeding anytime soon: Languages are often not directly translatable into each other. One language I work with has an entire part of speech I cannot adequately translate into English. I have to wave my hands and point to convey the same information in English.

      • I have to wave my hands and point to convey the same information in English.
        How is this substantially different to the way the majority of native english speakers convey information?
        • Exactly! Tons of information we convey is done outside of the language we use. Some of the things we have to "leave" English to convey are simple words in other languages. How can automatic machine translation possibly work when that is the case?

      • Italian? (Score:2, Funny)

        by Ruvim ( 889012 )
        I have to wave my hands and point to convey the same information in English.

        Must be Italian?

    • I like English because of the breadth of vocabulary. It allows for a certain level of nuance that enables me to express myself precisely while using as few words as possible. Also, the grammar is pretty simple. Pronunciation is not hard either, but our writing system needs work! As long as you practice spelling, there is nothing that makes English spectacularly difficult compared to other languages.
  • Oh great... (Score:5, Funny)

    by revlayle ( 964221 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:04AM (#16589356) Homepage
    the last time i heard of people constructing a Tower of Babel, the whole world got toally pwned and no one could understand each other. well, not much different than it is now is it.

    /not religious
  • Simulated telepathy. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EnsilZah ( 575600 ) <> on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:09AM (#16589390)
    I find that alot of my thought process is subvocalized.
    I was wondering how hard it would be to translate that into audible words and transmit them at a volume relative to distance from the receiver.
    Then you could have a social experiment where a group of people live together for a period of time while equipped with these transceivers.
  • Any chance it could correct Bush's english? Could help the rest of us understand what's he's trying to say.
  • by monopole ( 44023 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @01:26AM (#16589498)
    "All your base are belong to us!"
  • Some photos of the electrode arrangement needed on the face: [] []
    It's still a lab prototype of course, but a massively impressive one. I'm very pleased to see articulatory speech recognition (that's the main research area in this particular project, rather than the translation itself) get written up by the BBC.

    • Doing speech recognition based on articulatory data is much easier than doing it based on spoken speech data... It'd be a speech researcher's dream if s/he could always derive accurate articulatory data from speech, rather than having to make do with an inaccurate mapping from the modulations of the glottal source that it produces (formants, fricatives, stops, etc).

      Adding the translation step (which is doomed to be not much better than using a guide book to translate, given current levels of translation kno
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by rhysjj ( 1018414 )
        It's true that articulatory speech recognition should be easier than automatic speech recognition (ASR) based on waveform analysis alone. It's massively unfortunate that ASR research has, at least for the past 20 years, concentrated mostly on the latter and not the former. Janet Baker, whose MIT PhD introduced Hidden Markov Model (HMM)-based ASR, and opened the door to companies such as Dragon (which she and her husband founded), [] is herself now saying that HMMs are rubbish for speech recognition. I desperat
        • I hadn't heard that Janet Baker had said that about HMMs...interesting. Do you have a link or reference to the article where she said that, or any more information about why she said HMMs are inadequate and what alternatives she's proposing?

          I'd have thought though that use of HMMs or alternate approaches is orthoganal to what features (articulatory vs cepstra, etc) are being used.. is it really HMMs themselves that she's panning?

  • It would be cool if this technology could be designed into something like a hearing aid. It should probably be just large enough to be inserted into the inner ear canal. If it could interface directly with the auditory nerves that would be cool.. Sounds far off, but many current hearing aids can do this. We could put the microphone so that it's hidden completely. Hearing aids are useful, and nothing to be embarrassed about, but some people are self conscious about them.

    It's not so far off to think that it c
  • This just pushes the measurements of a persons vocal output down to the muscle level instead of sound levels. There is nothing artificially intelligent about this - they've limited their translation to 100-200 words and those are probably straight-literal translations. So basically all that's new and unique about this device is that it reads muscle impulses. No advance in the state of intelligent translation at all. And that's probably because there is no fundamental understanding of thought. Yet.
  • by Allnighterking ( 74212 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @03:19AM (#16590082) Homepage
    If it is using muscular sensors to "detect" sounds then wouldn't it be possible to create one that would allow the mute to speak? One would think that an English to English or Chinese to Chinese translation would allow then to perfect the detection process, and aid any number of people who can't for whatever reason speak but who can mouth words.
  • Killer App (Score:3, Informative)

    by jshazen ( 233469 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @03:48AM (#16590220)
    I can't believe nobody's posted this yet. This would be *really* useful as a *mono*-lingual translator! Build one of these into every cell phone, and suddenly I don't have to hear your inane conversation just because you happen to be sitting next to me in the plane.

    This should be *much* easier to do that the version that actually translates, and it would add nearly as much to quality of life of the user and everyone else in his environs.
  • Computer translators will never work, unless they can understood the context of the speech 100%...and this is impossible, unless the translator is fed all the knowledge of the speaker.

    Translation is not a matter of algorithm, but a matter of data.
  • What the hell is sub vocalized speech
      (he muttered)...
  • I guess they've perfected their translator that relies on actual vocalised speech then...

  • by shotgunefx ( 239460 ) on Thursday October 26, 2006 @06:24AM (#16590890) Journal
    Clerk: Ahh, matches!

    Hungarian: Ya! Ya! Ya! Ya! Do you you come back to my place, bouncy bouncy?

    Clerk: Here, I don't think you're using that thing right.

    Hungarian: You great
    poof. Clerk: That'll be six and six, please.
  • But, it'll never work. I worked on a translation program for several years back in the 90's and it comes down to this: to translate from one language to another you don't just have to understand the meaning of the words, but their context. And language just isn't logical. You can try and include lots of pre-translated phrases, but the combinations are infinite! In other words, the only way to solve this is to first create a real artificial intelligence... which may never happen.
    • True in general, but in practical terms I bet that a really large database of pre-translated pieces, with suitable fall-back algorithms, could do very well, perhaps especially in more formal domains such as technical papers. Google is trying this approach, and apparently already do much better than conventional translation approaches using it. I'm waiting for them to take it out of the lab and use it to replace Bablefish or whatever they use on
      • by argent ( 18001 )
        Plus, this device will have access to someone who understands the language - the person speaking. If the person you're talking to doesn't understand, you can change the way you phrase the statement. With the right kind of feedback and some kind of cueing mechanism this could also turn into an effective aid to learning a language.
  • Could it be used for direct translations into management speak?

    "It is a crock of shit, and smells as of a sewer." -> "It promoteth growth, and it is very powerful."
  • If tobaccanists get these, all requests to buy cigarrettes will translate as "My hovercraft is full of eels."
  • this is like promising sound of futures. the translate will sense make contains great accuracy grammar.
  • I am an English Major.

    There are a few scary things about this, one we all learn the same language this will drastically affect the number of perspectives in the world.

    While you may disagree I have a quote that can help explain one of my English Prof's said "The Most Important word in any language is representation."

    Another scary thought is that people won't need to learn any form of common language, if this technology gets sufficiently advanced it could literally allow each person to have their own la
  • It's a suppository!


Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing. -- Thomas Tusser