[Humanist] 27.209 A universal translator? Then what?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Jul 12 22:52:17 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 209.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 13 Jul 2013 06:39:41 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: A universal translator? Then what?

I recently stumbled across a translation app for iOS, SayHi (free) and 
its big sister, TableTop ($1.99 AUS). Both of these connect to a server, 
which I suspect does most to all of the heavy lifting, i.e. 
voice-recognition, translation and rendering into whatever target 
language. But it is quick. I don't think you would want to depend on it 
for poetry, philosophical argument or other highly subtle use of 
language. But the developer's stated objective, of facilitating simple 
conversation in real time between, say, an English and a German speaker, 
seems to have been achieved. The idea is that you put your iPad on the 
table between the two of you, each taps the appropriate button in turn, 
speaks and then is translated in a man's or woman's voice, depending on 
a set preference.

Impressive, I think. Let us say it works (as seems) well enough that 
people begin carrying their iPads around for the purpose. Let us say 
that digital technologies continue to progress, devices shrink in size 
and so on, let's say to the size of an earphone, or implant. All 
reasonable expectations? What then? I have read too many predictions of 
a universal brother/sisterhood brought about by some invention or other 
-- the telephone was one of these -- to think any fundamental human 
problem would be solved, but change as a result is certainly on the way. 
Only a matter of time. Now difference in language signals difference in 
culture. Remove the difference in language in such a way as SayHi hints 
at, what would we then have?

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/)

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