MASTOR Provides Real-Time Speech Translation

MASTOR (Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator) is an IBM research application that can dynamically translate English speech to Mandarin Chinese speech. You could speak English into a microphone at a conference, and the system will translate the sentence into Mandarin Chinese, and say it out loud in real time.

MASTOR's translations are based on statistical analysis of the language; the source sentence is decompiled into a set of conceptual ideas. Then, the translated sentence is constructed in the target language, based upon these conceptual ideas. The current version runs on a PC running Windows XP and CE (which means it could be run on a PDA). It will not be available to consumers for at least six months.

Real-time speech translation is an enabler for a variety of ideas that have been pure science fiction up until recently. For example, it implies that you have solved the problem of accurately understanding the spoken word. In the mid-sixties, IBM speech translation software worked 84 seconds for every real second of speech - and didn't have the accuracy or range.

Speaking of the mid-sixties, the original Star Trek series featured a universal translator. The episode was Metamorphosis, originally aired on November 11, 1967.


(Star Trek Universal Translator)

A good example of a realistically portrayed, real-time speech translation (and reply) device is the translator disc from Larry Niven's 1976 novel Ringworld:

"...I assume we are all wearing our communicator discs?"

Louis wore his inside his left wrist. The discs were linked to the autopilot aboard the Liar. They should work over such a distance, and the Liar's autopilot should be able to translate any new language...

...Presently the discs were filling in words and phrases... His voice was almost a chant, almost a recital of poetry. The autopilot was translating Louis's words into a similar chant, though it spoke to Louis in a conversational tone.
(Read more about Larry Niven's communicator discs)

As far as I know, the first example of a machine being able to translate and understand speech was the speech rectifier from Hugo Gernsback's 1911 classic Ralph 124c 41 +.

For other science fictional (yet real!) devices, take a look at the LingoPhone and the Phraselator P2 (in use in Iraq). Take a look at IBM Strives for 'Superhuman' Speech Tech; saw this one on /.

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