Working and living in Tokyo over the past two weeks I've often found myself totally unable to communicate or understand even basic concepts in everyday situations, an experience many travelers will know all too well. This troubling state of affairs is made particularly unbearable by the wealth of interesting foods and services available to absolutely everyone around me.
Consequently, when ordering from Japanese-only menus I've often resorted to a process of random selection, trusting my adventurous palette and brushing aside the waiter's seeming consternation over the contents of my order. During a recent visit to a nearby izakaya, the source of my host's confusion became quite clear when he delivered to me three piping hot bottles of sake, rather than what I had hoped would be a delicious, if unusual meal. Good for making friends with barmates, perhaps, but not at all what I had wanted.
Experiences like this are all too common in the world of short-term work travel, and for years it seemed that crash-course language tapes and a warm smile were the best tools for addressing the problem. Recently, however, during a visit to our in-house technical support department I was pleased to find that instead of fumbling through awkward gestures and incomprehensible dropdown menus, my colleague and I communicated using a real-time, locally-hosted two-way translation application. Far from the comical attempts of Altavista babelfish of yore, using this interface we were able to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the problem at hand, saving both time and headache. Working with technology like this it takes no great leap of imagination to foresee such tools tied into speech recognition / synthesis software.
This experience in its own right is not that remarkable- rather, what's most exciting is that this technology is not exclusively in the hands of those with access to serious local processing power. Earlier this week I enjoyed a similar interaction using a friend's mobile phone. Whether or not the application was running locally or processing was offloaded to the cloud, the reality is that real-time high-fidelity translation capabilities are soon going to find their way into the hands of the world's teeming masses, and the implications for the global society are going to be far-reaching.
One typically speaks of disruptive technology in hindsight, but it's relatively straightforward to predict that the wide availability of universal translation tools would have a profound impact on the global social network. If one agrees that the language barrier, in addition to geographic proximity, accounts for a significant portion of the edge weight between nodes in the global social network, the widespread use of real-time translation technology could easily precipitate a phase transition on this graph, characterized by the dramatically increased flow of information, goods, and services among previously isolated social clusters.
Specifically, cellphone translation services are the essential agent of change in this whole scenario. With emerging markets there's frequently little in-ground infrastructure to leverage, and so wireless communication often becomes the dominant paradigm. The widespread availability of mobile phones in developing economies means that people who might never otherwise have access to the resources required to learn a foreign language will soon be able to communicate their opinions and insights to a vastly increased network neighborhood. Previously impenetrable markets will open up, disadvantaged populations will be able to broadcast to a global audience, and in the same way the Internet diminished the importance of physical proximity, universal real-time voice-to-voice translation technology may represent the last stepping stone towards the realization of a truly global society.
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