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'Near real-time' translation tool revealed for Skype

Microsoft, Skype unveil translation tool at Re/Code conference

'Near real-time' translation tool revealed for Skype
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, describes the tool as 'magical' and 'brain-like'.

Microsoft demonstrated ‘near real-time' language translation in voice calls for Skype at Re/Code, a programmers conference that debuted on Tuesday in California.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Skype chief Gurdeep Singh Pall demoed the real-time language translation tool that has been built into Skype and works like having a real interpreter as part of the conversation.

Introducing the technology, Nadella said: "The fascinating feature of this is something called transfer learning; if you teach it English, it learns English, if you teach it Mandarin, it learns Mandarin but it becomes better at English.

"Then you teach it Spanish and it gets good at Spanish but it gets great at both Mandarin and English and quite frankly none of us know exactly why.

"It is brain-like in the sense of its capability to learn. It is magical and it is going to make sure you can communicate with anybody without language barriers."

Microsoft hopes to use the huge number of conversations that take place on Skype to improve its translation tools with real language and speech patterns, which could lead to much better back-and-forth translations.

During the demonstration, Pall had a conversation with another Microsoft employee, Diana Heinrichs, who spoke German, with Skype providing real-time translation from German to English and vice versa. 

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According to tech site, Macrumors, German audience members said that the software performed "pretty good" but not perfectly. The two discussed Singh Pall's plans to move to London to join the Skype team and the demo showed how users must wait until the other person has finished speaking before the translation is given.

Microsoft research started 15 years ago with a mission translation group working on speech recognition. The key breakthrough came in 2010 when the team developed a system for real-time speech-to-text and speech-to-speech translation of voice calls.

Since then the firm has been analysing conversational data, the way people speak on social media and the differences between how people write and talk in order to fine-tune the technology.

"That's one of the things over the last year that my team's been doing: resolving the mismatch between the way people talk and the way they write," project leader Arul Menezes said on the Microsoft Research blog.

"If your translation system is focused on written text, it works very poorly with spoken language."

A beta app is expected to land for Windows 8 users before the end of 2014, with a commercial rollout possible within a couple of years.

According to the conference website, recode.net, Microsoft will start with a small number of languages, those that "it can do well" and will only be available for the Windows version of Skype. Microsoft hopes to add more languages quickly as development progresses, as well as expand to other platforms for the many types of computers and mobile devices that Skype customers use.

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