By Harry McCracken | Monday, February 8, 2010 at 11:18 am
When I was a kid, one of my favorite fictional characters was Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm, the ultimate absent-minded professor. His inventions were brilliant, but always ended up causing immense trouble for anyone who used them. The one I remember in most vivid detail is an automatic translating machine, which let tourists speak one language into a microphone and have any other language come out the other end. As I recall, it ended up wreaking havoc, but I still thought it was about the neatest idea I’d ever heard.
Fast-forward almost forty years, and Professor Branestawm’s gizmo is no longer the stuff of playful science fiction. Times Online is reporting that Google is working on phone software that does precisely what his creation did–with, one hopes, better results. The company thinks it should have it working reasonably well within a few years.
That doesn’t sound like an irrationally exuberant expectation. Voice recognition already works really well; text-to-speech voice synthesis isn’t bad these days, either. The tricky part is the translation. But I saw a Google translation research project almost half a decade ago that knocked my socks off. And if the company focused on the sort of simple things that travelers might want to say to locals (“Can you tell me how to get to the Louvre?”) it might get better results more quickly than if attempted to provide a perfect rendition of every idea that human beings are capable of expressing in words.
As someone who loves to travel but lacks the gift that several of my relatives have for learning foreign languages, I can’t wait. And I’m sorry that Norman Hunter, who died at 95 three years before Google’s debut, won’t be around to give it whirl.