Peter Lee speaks at a Microsoft conference in 2012. Credit: Microsoft Research / Flickr Creative Commons
If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you know that one of the most terrifying parts of travel is being surrounded by a language you don’t understand. Peter Lee, head of Microsoft Research, might be able to change all that (and drastically reduce the amount of time you spend furrowing your brows and squinting at that French menu). Lee and his colleagues have created technology that can translate from language to language in real time, and he discusses it with us, along with other with up-and-coming technology that could change our lives.
Lee remembers that during one of the first demonstrations of the translation software, he was sitting in the audience at a Chinese school. As the speaker delivered his remarks in English, his words emerged from the loudspeaker in near-perfect Mandarin. “I looked at the team and of course they were all nervous,” he recalls. “But then I looked at the row behind them, which was the first row of these Chinese students. And they had tears streaming down their eyes.”
For now, the system is still in development. Lee notes that the technology still has about a 7% error rate, meaning that about one in every 14 words or so translates incorrectly. But, as Lee points out, that’s just about as good as you would get with a human translator, even some of the most adept simultaneous translators employed by prestigious international organizations like the United Nations.
John Kerry appears on a television screen at the translators' booth at the United Nations. Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr Creative Commons
What other futuristic tech is in the pipeline at Microsoft? There may be a myriad of applications for Kinect, the company’s motion detection software that has been used to bring video games for the Xbox console to new heights in virtual reality. “Honestly, when I first saw it – and this was in development, when I joined Microsoft – I thought, this couldn’t possibly work,” Lee says.
And yet, since then, Kinect has both gone to market and incorporated an array of new features. One that Lee finds particularly impressive is the addition of four microphones which snap the machine’s attention right to your mouth, even if other people in the room are making lots of noise – just as a person would if you were in conversation at a noisy cocktail party.
Want to hear more about what new technology is just over the horizon? Tune in to our full interview with Peter Lee, above.
- See Microsoft's simultaneous translation in action.
- Read about the "new levels of realism" in gaming made possible by the Kinect.