In Douglas Adams iconic science fiction saga from the 1970s, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, one of the alien species is the Babel fish. To quote the book, “The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”
Thus, the Babel fish is a universal translator that neatly crosses the language divide between any species. The book points out that the Babel fish could not possibly have developed naturally, and therefore it both proves and disproves the existence of God.
Then, this morning I read an eye-opening article in The Wall Street Journal, where the author says that within 10 years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said in your native language nearly simultaneously as a foreign language is being spoken. The lag time will be the speed of sound. The article is written by Alec Ross, the former senior adviser for innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State, and the conclusion he makes is that language barriers are about to fall.
Technology innovation moves at a staggering speed. We have had Google Translate for quite some time now, and both Google and Microsoft apps for instantaneous translations are already available on on smart phones. Microsoft’s cloud based Translator service powers not only text but also speech conversation translation in seven languages (Chinese Mandarin, English, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish) in Skype Translator and Skype for Windows Desktop, and the Microsoft Translator Apps for IOS and Android. I tried it out the app for the Apple Watch this morning and it works really well, although with a lag to speak into the watch and then wait for the translation to show back in text.
At the same time, Bluetooth ear buds are becoming very capable, designed mainstream products, albeit with short battery life. Two highly praised new products are the German Bragi Dash and the Swedish Earin. Both these devices represents new, radical innovation with a technology leap beyond other wireless earpieces of recent years.
Of the two, I find Bragi Dash to be the most interesting. Tech companies the world over are looking to crack the wearable technology market, especially in terms of fitness tracking. Not only does it have audio microphone and speaker, Bragi have also integrated a three-axis accelerometer, a thermometer, capacitive sensors and optical sensors. Together with a smart phone app, the Bragi Dash can track the user’s physical conditions such as heart rate, heart rate variability, oxygen saturation, body temperature, and calories burned.
For health coaching, the Bragi Dash can track performance measures such as steps, cadence, time, g-force, rotation, turns and more, which means users are not required to wear something additional while working out. Further, with GPS added via a smart phone, it can detect the distance travelled, speed, drop rate, and altitude. Not bad for a simple earbud.
Clearly the ecosystem technology is there already for cloud based apps to integrate also simultaneous translations. I just wonder how long time will pass before they will bypass our senses and integrate with us biometrically, as the fictional Babel fish does.