[LMB] Translating Machines

Mark A. Mandel thnidu at yahoo.com
Sat Jun 10 03:56:51 BST 2006

--- "James M. BRYANT, G4CLF" <jbryant at lunainternet.net> wrote:

> I was recently asked if it was possible yet
> to obtain a "hearing aid" which listens in
> one language and outputs another.
> My first instinct was Google. My second was
> that one should never do for oneself what
> one can con an expert into doing for you
> and therefore to ask Dr. Whom offlist what
> he knows about this before googling.
> And my third was to realise this device is
> a Vorkosiverse reality (BoI and DI, possibly
> others) and so on-topic - and to ask Mark
> on-list.
> What do you know, oh philological busybody?

No such thing exists at present, or at least not in public knowledge. I
strongly doubt that MI-5, The Company, or any of their competitors have it
either, because it's so far ahead of known tech.

Mid-nineties or so, Dragon Systems had a production called Babelfish --
not the only company to snarf that name from HHGG -- which was developed
for UN peacekeepers, iirc. Suppose you're an American medic in a field
hospital for civilians displaced by civil war... in Montenegro or
Afghanistan or East Timor or Darfur or you name it. And you have to figure
out what this patient needs. "Show me where it hurts." "Are you hungry?"
And so on. Well, instead of working your way through a set of flash cards
(is the patient literate? is s/he blind? is this language even written?),
you speak to the patient. 

But you're also wearing a small mic, and the speech recognition system
inside the computer you are wearing around your waist is set up to
recognize a thousand or couple thousand such utterances. It shows what it
"thinks" you said -- possibly on an eyeglass-mounted display -- you say
"go ahead" or some other similar command (or other commands if it
misrecognized), and the audio outputs the translation spoken in the
patient's language (which of course has all been set up when the system
was sent here). If it's not a "point-to-where-it-hurts" sort of question,
there will be answers on a screen for the patient to point to. (You, the
medic, have learned to use the system and that you can't simply talk to it
conversationally, and you may have spent 10-15 minutes training it to your
voice. Can't expect that of a patient.)

This is far from a Barrayaran or Betan earbug. It's limited vocabulary,
non-conversational, etc. 

I just heard through the ex-Dragon grapevine that some other company has
put in a patent application on something that looks similar.

-- Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoepist, and Philological

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