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Originally conceived by science fiction writer Murray Leinster and utilized in his 1945 novella ‘First Contact’, the universal translator is a device that translates any language into a language known to the device’s user.
Most people reading this article will be infinitely more familiar with the universal translator as featured in ‘Star Trek’ and its various incarnations. Star Trek’s version of the translator is actually an extremely effective plot device, allowing aliens from anywhere in the universe to speak perfect English, even if they have never met a Human being a day in their lives (and thus allowing the writers of ‘Star Trek’ the freedom to not have to explain why each alien race speaks English so well in every other episode). In reality, alien linguistics would likely be so alien that they could take generations to decipher and even prove to be impossible for Human vocal chords to mimic.
On a more ‘down to earth’ level, a universal translator would decode any/all languages spoken on earth instantly (or near-instantly), allowing a person speaking Mandarin Chinese to freely converse with a person speaking Hindi with no miscommunications whatsoever.
Why we want it:
Such technology could really benefit the Human race in its quest for world peace.
In much the same way that the Internet has made it harder for various politically motivated factions to create propaganda about those they wish to invade (because now we can simply ask them if the stories are true or not), a universal translator would help people to reach a shared understanding.
Nothing would ever be lost in translation and everything would be clearly and effectively understood.
The downside, of course, is that people would not have to learn another language in order to communicate with other people, this, I feel, really would be a shame, as a culture’s views, experiences and legacy are often enshrined in its language, meaning that learning another language really is a window into a larger world with many different points of view.
When can we expect it?
You can see a crap version of this technology if you use ‘Google Translate’, but that’s only useful if you’re decoding simple phrases and words.
Early versions of the universal translator as seen in ‘Star Trek’ (and other series), do actually exist. American troops in Iraq employed the TRANSTAC program, (which automatically translated Arabic-English), before replacing it with the BOLT program (Broad Operational Language Translation), which serves as the current version of the US army translator.
However, the translator that allows us to freely chat in two distinct languages (and still be understood) has yet to be invented. In my estimation, the technology could one day exist and we’ll probably see its true prototype within the next 50 years, as such an invention will likely become a necessity of business by the mid 21st Century.
If I had to pick someone who was likely to invent it, I’d go with Google. It is in their best interests to come up with it first.
Remember that scene in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ where the crew of the Enterprise fly back in time to the mid 1980’s and Doc McCoy encounters an elderly Woman who needs kidney dialysis. Exploding in disbelief, the great doctor cries “what’s this, the dark ages!?” before giving the Lady a tablet that rapidly grows her a new kidney, much to her delight. That’s where we might be within a couple of decades – ‘Star Trek’ technology. What could be cooler than that?
Joining the NHS organ donor list is a way you may help this example, today.