BreakthroughNear-real-time translation now works for a large number of languages and is easy to use.
Why it mattersIn an increasingly global world, language is still a barrier to communication.
Key playersGoogle and Baidu
In the cult sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you slide a yellow Babel fish into your ear to get translations in an instant. In the real world, Google has come up with an interim solution: a $159 pair of earbuds, called Pixel Buds. These work with its Pixel smartphones and Google Translate app to produce practically real-time translation.
One person wears the earbuds, while the other holds a phone. The earbud wearer speaks in his or her language—English is the default—and the app translates the talking and plays it aloud on the phone. The person holding the phone responds; this response is translated and played through the earbuds.
Google Translate already has a conversation feature, and its iOS and Android apps let two users speak as it automatically figures out what languages they’re using and then translates them. But background noise can make it hard for the app to understand what people are saying, and also to figure out when one person has stopped speaking and it’s time to start translating.
Pixel Buds get around these problems because the wearer taps and holds a finger on the right earbud while talking. Splitting the interaction between the phone and the earbuds gives each person control of a microphone and helps the speakers maintain eye contact, since they’re not trying to pass a phone back and forth.
The Pixel Buds were widely panned for subpar design. They do look silly, and they may not fit well in your ears. They can also be hard to set up with a phone.
Clunky hardware can be fixed, though. Pixel Buds show the promise of mutually intelligible communication between languages in close to real time. And no fish required.
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
The city wants to get right what Sidewalk Labs got so wrong.
Chinese gamers are using a Steam wallpaper app to get porn past the censors
Wallpaper Engine has become a haven for ingenious Chinese users who use it to smuggle adult content as desktop wallpaper. But how long can it last?
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.
The US military wants to understand the most important software on Earth
Open-source code runs on every computer on the planet—and keeps America’s critical infrastructure going. DARPA is worried about how well it can be trusted
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.