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Editorial: Cultural gap may be getting a bit smaller

If you attended Sunday School, you’ve read the story in Genesis.

“Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Many, many centuries later, language still divides the world, but now there’s a new way to scale the barrier.

Late last month during the Code Conference in California, Microsoft demonstrated Skype Translator, a software program that promises to revolutionize the way the world communicates.

The program, which will be released for Windows 8 later this year, allows for real-time audio translation by combining Skype’s voice and video technology with neural network- based speech recognition.

During the May 27 demo, Gurdeep Pall, the corporate vice president of Skype, spoke with a German colleague via video call. As the two talked about topics such as London neighborhoods and Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., the program took care of the translation with just a short delay.

Big deal, you say? Well, if you believe Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, this particular program isn’t your average technological achievement.

“What happens is, say, you teach it English. It learns English,” Nadella said. “Then you teach it Mandarin. It learns Mandarin, but it becomes better at English. And then you teach it Spanish. It gets good at Spanish, but it gets great at both Mandarin and English. And quite frankly, none of us know exactly why. It’s brain-like in the sense of its capabilities. It’s magical.”

And with 300 million monthly users and three-quarters of a trillion minutes of conversations annually, Skype has a pretty good in-house language lab to help add to that magic, provided the company is able to navigate privacy concerns. The program will handle a limited number of languages at first, but demand will almost certainly fuel rapid expansion to make it become a true Star Trek-style universal translator, perhaps even including Klingon.

For every person who gets excited about each technological step into the future, there are many who see computers expediting the dissolution of real human interaction. But Skype Translator could be something far different: an opportunity to eliminate the greatest barrier to cultural understanding. The change won’t be immediate, but it has the potential to be profound.

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