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Microsoft started rolling out a new feature for Skype on Monday: Skype Translator will translate communications from users using different languages in near real-time — that is, as you’re chatting. At first, Skype Translator will work with spoken English and Spanish, as well as forty written languages over instant messaging.
To try it out, you’ll need a computer running Windows 8.1 or a current Windows Phone. You can sign up for the preview here. Users of Skype Translator will need to manually activate the feature for each person they speak to in order to hear their conversation automatically translated. The software will also provide an on-screen transcript of the call.
Microsoft has been working on real-time translation for years in its research wing. The process requires a mastery of speech recognition as well a solid machine translation foundation. In May, Microsoft provided a public demonstration of the machine learning technology, and CEO Satya Nadella commented that there were aspects of the program — which uses deep neural networks and incorporates feedback to continue improving — that Microsoft still didn’t understand:
“You teach in English, it learns English. Then you teach it Mandarin — it learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English. And 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.”
Previous demonstrations have shown the software translating spoken German and offering translations in the user’s own voice, but those features are not available in the first preview. Microsoft has more information about how Skype Translator works on a technical level here.
To start, Skype Translator appears to be aimed at schools. [company]Microsoft[/company] filmed an adorable promotional video depicting an American student based in Tacoma, Washington, talking to a Spanish-speaking student in Mexico City.
But as any science fiction fan can attest, the potential applications of real-time translation go way beyond education. It could be invaluable for businesses that need to coordinate teams internationally, and the same technology has the potential to completely change the way tourism works. Skype Translator might not be good enough to totally rely on yet, but by signing up for the preview, you might help it get there soon.