Soon, Talking to Strangers Will Be Even Easier

Soon, Talking to Strangers Will Be Even Easier

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Instant translation will help us all enjoy a more intimate experience, no matter where we explore. You totally prepared for this trip. You booked the flights months ago. You have all the best sights saved in Google Maps. But then you land in Munich or Kigali or Buenos Aires…

Instant translation will help us all enjoy a more intimate experience, no matter where we explore.

You totally prepared for this trip. You booked the flights months ago. You have all the best sights saved in Google Maps. But then you land in Munich or Kigali or Buenos Aires and realize you can’t even identify the sign pointing toward baggage claim, much less tell your cabbie where you’re headed. Luckily your phone can now do those things for you. Whether you use Siri or Google Assistant, or if you download the SayHi or iTranslate apps, you have in your pocket a pretty capable real-time language translator.

Right now this translation tech is still in its infancy and primarily eases logistical complexities. With Google Translate, you can point your camera at a street sign to verify it says "Downtown This Way" and not "There Be Dragons." The same app can quickly translate a menu—if not always perfectly, then well enough to be sure that you’re ordering chicken.

As translation tech improves, though, the benefit will extend way beyond just helping you get around. When translation happens quickly and accurately enough to have a conversation that spans two languages and feels almost natural, we’ll be able to experience places in an entirely new way. “Even if you go to a country and you can get by with English, they’re putting on a version of their culture that’s palatable to you rather than their real culture,” says Rafat Ali, CEO and founder of Skift, a travel news site. With great translation you’ll be able to people-watch, explore local TV and movies, and meet folks beyond just those who speak your language, allowing you to connect with people and culture in more intimate ways.

Eventually you might not even know translation is happening. You’ll just speak in your language and those around you will hear you in theirs. (It’s not just languages like English and Chinese either; imagine giving your grandparents a set of earbuds that turn “It’s lit, fam” into “How wonderful, loved ones.”) That will require a huge leap forward in just about every aspect of the technology—from connection speeds to machine learning algorithms, which currently churn out primitive but usable translations. And, of course, everyone will need to be using some sort of earpiece.

An even bigger change will come as our gadgets evolve. You might wear a set of augmented-reality glasses from Microsoft or Magic Leap that auto-translate road signs as you drive. Maybe your headphones are a futuristic version of the Pilot earbuds from a startup called Waverly Labs, which promise to turn anyone’s words into your native tongue before they even hit your ears. Google’s Pixel Buds already do this—not flawlessly, but they’ll improve. Once these work well, you won’t need to open an app just to speak to someone. You’ll just … speak.

No one can learn all the languages in the world, but computers can. And they will. When that happens, you’ll be able to go anywhere and immediately know what’s going on. Even better, you’ll be able to ask a local.

David Pierce (@pierce) wrote about the AR office in issue 26.02.

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