The Tower of Babel Rebuilt: How technology will obviate language-learning

One of the more hyped startups from Y Combinator’s Summer 2011 class is Verbling, a web app that uses live video chat between those learning a language and their native speaker counterparts from around the world.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of services like Verbling is under attack. Recent technological advancement framed within the context of new theories about the pivotal role of language in human evolution are decreasing the value of foreign language competency.

Five years ago, the benefits of learning languages beyond one’s native tongue would have been self-evident. Traveling, career development and social life would all benefit greatly from time spent learning a language or two.

But this is 2011, and technology has swung the outcome of this cost-benefit analysis the other way.

Crucially, translation technology will evolve within the next five to ten years to make the process instantaneous and transparent to the end-user, rendering foreign language competency effectively useless.

Advances in speech recognition will make input clearer and thus manipulation easier. Companies like Nuance and Siri have been doing impressive work lately furthering speech recognition capabilities. The next iPhone, rumored to be released within the next few weeks, will give us an early glimpse of how speech input has become so sophisticated it passes even Apple’s very high bar of consumer-readiness.

Improvements in machine translation, coupled with powerful data analysis and association tools (“big data“) will make raw digital translation capability extremely fast and accurate. Both IBM and Google have been working on this for a few years now, and you can even try it today with Google’s consumer Translate service.

Similar gains in the power of server-side computation (the cloud), network infrastructure, and mobile devices that capture and demand translation (the end-user) will be the final pieces of glue that make it all a reality.

New startups like Vocre have harnessed all these advances to make real-life conversations across languages seamless. Last week they debuted their iPhone translation app that “allows anyone to communicate instantly with anybody from anywhere — without language being a barrier” according to their website. Essentially, the app will listen to someone speak, detect their language, translate and playback in your language, then take your response and translate and play it back to the other person.

Furthermore, powerful mobile apps like Word Lens even solve the problem of translating any text physically printed onto the world (signs, advertisements, anything), so that speech and verbal communication won’t remain the only domain of translation. This technology is available today and is surprisingly accurate and reliable.

Besides translation that relies on speech or visual input, seamless translation of text on the Internet, where a great amount of global communication already takes place, will also be fully realized within the stated timeframe.

As a corollary, it’s quite likely that a universal human language may never take hold (which many have predicted would be either English, Spanish or Mandarin). What’s the point if technology helps us cross these barriers automatically?

Our confidence in technology’s ability to rebuild the Tower of Babel should remain steadfast thanks to newly emerging scientific theories. It is now becoming clear that language was pivotal in the early development of humanity, and where such criticality exists, so do markets and business opportunities ripe for exploitation.

In his recent TED Talk, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel asserts that language was a social technology that emerged out of homo sapiens’ new ability to accurately mimic anything they saw. In order to prevent this “visual theft,” language was used to protect the ideas and innovations of early human cultures from those of other competing groups.

In describing this theory, Pagel smartly identifies language as:

…a piece of neural-audio technology for rewiring other peoples’ minds … it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you without either of you having to perform surgery.”

These “discrete pulses of sound” allowed homo sapiens to cooperate on levels theretofore unwitnessed on Earth. Competing species like homo erectus were never able to develop language like us and remained outside of our cooperative networks (cultures).

An article from BBC News earlier this summer goes into greater detail about the role language played in keeping homo erectus backward: [emphasis is my own]

“Yet Homo erectus was slightly bigger and more powerful than Homo sapiens, so why did we thrive when they did not? The most obvious answer is that we had bigger brains – but it turns out that what matters is not overall brain size but the areas where the brain is larger.

‘The Homo erectus brain did not devote a lot of space to the part of the brain that controls language and speech,’ said John Shea, professor of palaeoanthropology at Stony Brook University in New York.

‘One of the crucial elements of Homo sapiens’ adaptations is that it combines complex planning, developed in the front of the brain, with language and the ability to spread new ideas from one individual to another.. ‘

Planning, communication and even trade led, among other things, to the development of better tools and weapons which spread rapidly across the population.

The fossil records suggest that H. erectus went on making the same basic hand axe for more than a million years.”

Using technology to eliminate cultural barriers and thus enhance global human cooperation is a direct descendent of these early evolutionary developments. Rest assured great progress will be made within the decade, and with it, the diminishing usefulness of foreign language competency.

8 thoughts on “The Tower of Babel Rebuilt: How technology will obviate language-learning

  1. For work purposes, perhaps. I don’t buy it in terms of everyday instances where one might want to bring subtlety to a conversation. At best, person A would have to have a mic and person B would have to have an ear piece to more naturally replicate the experience of conversing with someone…otherwise, we’ll feel like we’re talking to/through computers and that’s just weird for too many situations.

    • Yea, that’s a good point. Vocre does nail conversational translation pretty well, but it still has the undeniable awkwardness of middleware. It’s sci-fi now, but in the future, we’ll have direct translation with brain-computer interfaces.

    • On the other hand, I’d argue a lot of non-native speakers (especially those who haven’t been immersed for a while in their new language) have little ability to bring subtlety to a conversation anyway due to limited vocabulary and lack of gut feel for the shades of meaning of different grammatical structures. It’s not clear to me that a good machine translation of a highly nuanced statement in the speaker’s native language would necessarily be more crude than the person’s attempt to express themselves via their limited ability in the target language.

      • Great point. You only need translation to be good enough, not perfect. Those perfect conversations will be relegated to the long-tail of speakers, whereas most will take place in the cruder format.

  2. Most interesting and bold article about the future of “our” business from someone who knows quite a lot about technological developments in the translation space. It paints a pretty gloomy picture for industry professionals who now make their living from their human language talents. I’m not sure if developments will go this fast or this far, but that things are going to change dramatically in the next years, seems almost certain. Machine translation and machine interpretation do look like they are the way of the future. I do believe the human language talents will still have a big role to play for some time to come yet…

    • Yes, there’s definitely still a minimum of 10-20 years of the status quo. The whole world doesn’t sit at the edge of technological progress. It takes a while for it to trickle-down to enough humans to be truly transformational.

    • Thanks for your feedback Joel! I think it’s a very exciting space to watch and can really affect human behavior in a way most of us haven’t really conceived of yet. Glad to see my piece is being shared!

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