Primal Numbers – Translating 2015

If there’s one overwhelming impression that will close out 2014, it’s of people talking. Talking on cell phones. Chatting as they stream TV shows or watch YouTube videos. Making videos themselves, sharing ideas. Now imagine that all those voices can talk to anyone, anywhere, in any language, and instantly be understood. That’s the potential of a new instant translator Microsoft has been working on. It’s game-changing technology for 2015?and it might just change the world.

The prevailing wisdom, of course, is that people rarely talk to each other anymore. We’re supposedly living in one of the least communicative eras in history, with everyone so absorbed in their screens that they hardly realize there’s anyone else around them.

But think about the last time you went an hour, or half an hour, without hearing another person’s voice. They might not be speaking directly to you?they could be on the TV, radio, or Internet?but the fact is we’re surrounded by people’s voices pretty much everywhere we go. In spite of all the ways technology lets us interact, from SMS to selfies, the human voice is still our primary mode of communication.

It’s how we make ourselves understood in perhaps the fullest sense, complete with subtle changes in meaning that come from things like tone and inflection. Body language and facial expressions add depth as well, but even without them the human voice conveys countless shades of meaning.

Which is why Microsoft’s real-time voice translator holds such promise. It’s called the Skype Translator, and it’s an app that works as part of the Skype video and chat program. As Science Alert reports, besides the ability to translate voice conversations in several languages almost instantly, the software is “also translating instant message conversations in more than 40 languages.”

It’s easy to see how this type of technology could be used in business or legal settings, making deals and decisions go much more smoothly. But the real potential is captured in the video on the Science Alert site?the demo that features school kids communicating across borders, even though they speak different languages.

In the not-too-distant future, this is the kind of thing that could break down barriers in the global village. It’s all too easy, in a world of countless political and ideological battles, to see things in black and white. In terms of us and them, of the known (good) and the unknown (bad). Far too easy to believe the partisan talking points about events and places that are foreign to us.

But what if we could open an app and a dialogue at the same time? A dialogue with no language barriers, no matter where the speakers were. A dialogue between ordinary people who might find that they share a lot of common ground in spite of outward differences.

It’s easy to see how, even though some aspects of modern technology do break social bonds, other aspects of that same technology can build global connections between people in ways that would have seemed impossible a mere 20 or 30 years ago.

So as 2014 comes to an end, and 2015 beckons, let’s welcome the new while keeping the best of the old. Let’s pursue the advantages that science and technology bring, while we find ways to make them benefit humanity.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season. See you in 2015!

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.