Human Achievement of the Day: “Trekkie” Universal Translator (Almost)

While not quite the “universal translator” that allowed Star Trek characters to communicate instantly with just about all alien species, Microsoft’s new translation software does bring us another step closer to universal communication.

The software, developed by Frank Soong and Rick Rashid, converts the spoken dialogue into another language and replays the translated speech with the voice and inflections of the user.

The system was demonstrated last week at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters. It requires an initial one-hour training session for users so that the software can recognize and modify the voice pattern. The hope is that the system will eliminate the misunderstandings that have plagued other translators due to missing inflections and context that communicate complex speech modes, such as sarcasm.

You can listen to a demonstration at

The developers hope that their new tool will give business people in foreign lands greater confidence and ability when communicating with potential partners than previous translation tools have in the past. Since the software mimics the intonation of speech, it is more likely that their meaning will come across as they intend. Many have speculated that the software could one day be installed on smart phones, giving travelers an invaluable tool to navigate and explore new lands. Furthermore, the makers of the software believe it can be used as an aid to learning a new language. In an interview with Technology Review, Frank Soong expressed his belief that hearing foreign phrases in one’s own voice could be easier to imitate.  However, one wonders what the proliferation of translation devices will do to people’s desire to learn new languages.

The system is not yet instantaneous like the universal translator and isn’t exactly “universal,” since it only translates between 26 languages at the moment. But this definitely brings us one step closer to being able to properly hit on sexy aliens.