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Japan Getting Real-Time Phone Call Translator App 113

Posted by Soulskill
from the philology-becomes-an-engineering-specialization dept.
another random user writes with news that NTT Docomo, Japan's largest wireless carrier, will be rolling out a real-time translation app for phone calls on November 1. At launch, the app will translate Japanese into English, Mandarin, and Korean, and later that month it will add French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai. No word on Klingon. From the article: "The products have the potential to let companies avoid having to use specially trained multilingual staff, helping them cut costs. They could also aid tourism. However, the software involved cannot offer perfect translations, limiting its use in some situations. ... It provides users with voice translations of the other speaker's conversation after a slight pause, as well as providing a text readout. ... NTT Docomo will soon face competition from France's Alcatel-Lucent which is developing a rival product, WeTalk. It can handle Japanese and about a dozen other languages including English, French and Arabic. The service is designed to work over any landline telephone, meaning the company has had to find a way to do speech recognition using audio data sampled at a rate of 8kHz or 16kHz. Other products — which rely on data connections — have used higher 44kHz samples which are easier to process."
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Japan Getting Real-Time Phone Call Translator App

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  • Star Trek (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MyLongNickName (822545) on Monday October 22, 2012 @08:51AM (#41727579) Journal

    One step closer to Star Trek. Seriously, though, someone needs to set up a "BadPhoneCallTranslation.com" domain and set it to replay some of the funniest or awkward phone call translations.

    And on an unrelated note, I am now seeing stories with red bars at the top. Am I now seeing articles to be posted in the future? Or is this just another Slashdot weird redesign?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The red bars show it's a new story without comments yet. For such a low UID I'm surprised you'd never seen it before

    • Re:Star Trek (Score:5, Insightful)

      by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Monday October 22, 2012 @08:58AM (#41727643) Homepage

      One step closer to Star Trek.

      Still far away, though. This project is making use of giant pre-existing databases of English and Japanese in order to translate speech from one language to the other. The Star Trek universal translator, on the other hand, was capable of translating between English and previously unknown alien languages. Because of the principle of l'arbitraire du signe and the frequent use of idioms in human speech, in order for a computer to be able to learn and translate from a previously undocumented language (as opposed to useful but flawed Google Translate-like methods), we would essentially need true AI, and that doesn't seem likely in the coming years.

      • The Star Trek universal translator, on the other hand, was capable of translating between English and previously unknown alien languages. Because of the principle of l'arbitraire du signe and the frequent use of idioms in human speech

        Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

    • by tekrat (242117) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:33AM (#41727903) Homepage Journal

      Can you imagine how rich this dude would have been had he actually patented every concept he came up with for Star Trek? Fortunately, back then you couldn't patent a concept, because our government wasn't as corrupt.

      And therein lies the ultimate irony of Star Trek; for everything Gene got right about the tech, he failed miserably predicting human nature and greed.

      • You forget that we need a collapse in society first... Perhaps he could still be right?
      • by Desler (1608317)

        He wouldn't have made anything. The patents would have expired decades prior to the technology being possible.

      • by Thomasje (709120)
        Fortunately, back then you couldn't patent a concept

        Not true. In Richard Feynman's memoirs (either Surely You're Joking or The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, I forget which one), he tells that after the Manhattan project, he and his colleagues were asked by managers to come up with ideas that they could patent. Feynman, half in jest, tossed up a few including "nuclear-powered aircraft" ("nuclear-powered ship" was already taken). The patents were applied for, and were awarded, and a few years later, Feynm

  • "Cut Costs" (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Monday October 22, 2012 @08:53AM (#41727603) Journal

    Ever notice that none of these stories are ever written from the jobs perspective? "I lost my translation job because ___ company is rolling out a software program that will do my job for them."

    Repeat until there are no jobs left.

    • by Lumpio- (986581)
      Maybe it's because jobs and labor unions and whatnot are very uninteresting from a tech perspective.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        Just use the magic word "H1B" and all that changes... The disappearance of other people's jobs is just the inevitable march of progress, and will probably make them better off in the long run anyway. My job, though, now that's a different story...

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          Just use the magic word "H1B" and all that changes

          Technological advances that take jobs have been normal since the industrial revolution. Hiring cheap foreign workers has not. E.g., the railroads didn't import Irishmen and Chinamen on H1Bs, they hired immigrants.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The predictions of Luddites that jobs are going away due to X technology being developed have never been correct. New technologies create new opportunities. If advances in technology always cost jobs, then the vast majority of people would be unemployed.

      • Nope AC. Of course there's the gap.

        The job goes away as fast as the slip in the Manager's office. Rent's due next week and you needed that paycheck. The "Opportunity" doesn't show up for years.

        • by Lumpio- (986581)
          Tough luck. Nobody has an obligation to guarantee a job for you. You need to make sure that people will want to employ you - even as things change and technology advances.
      • by vlm (69642)

        New technologies create new opportunities.

        Why? Other than its usually worked out so far on a big enough scale.

        I'd argue something like more systemic complexity requires more management which requires skilled people... so far.... and until you run out of skilled people.

        then the vast majority of people would be unemployed.

        Maybe not "vast" but we're basically already there right around only about half the population produces. And it sucks.

      • So what you're saying is, it has always been thus and thus it will always be. And you're wrong. Mind-replacing software is as encompassing as steam power and the world will change just as much as it develops. It's unproven whether there's a third category of jobs after man's muscle and then mind have been replaced but I can't imagine what it would be. And if somehow there is a third category in a hundred years can it reach back in time and allay the suffering being caused right now?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      There will always be jobs.

      1) Robotics
      2) Software engineering
      3) Game development

      Whether there will ever be seven billion jobs is another story.

    • by a0me (1422855)
      Although to be honest the day when machine translation can be considered a viable tool is not even close, particularly when you deal with non-latin languages like Japanese. If you add to this fact that speech recognition software is still far from perfect, human translation is not going to be replaced by software for at least a few more decades.
    • Re:"Cut Costs" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:29AM (#41727879)

      Yeah well, and candle makers and horse carriage makers also lost their jobs. And so did coal shovelers and pretzel salters.

      The goal here is, to free humanity from primitive low-level jobs, so that they can concentrate on cool and interesting challenges.
      In fact we're already so far with this, that we (at least in Germany) could offer unconditional base income (generated from those automated low-level jobs), so people can do exactly that: Work on making dreams come true.
      And: No, contrary to what the industrialists want to tell you, humans won't become lazy slobs when they aren't forced into slave labor. It has been shown, time and time again, that people need that freedom to create something really great, and historically, artists and inventors thrived when there was such a space.

      You're assuming people are dumbasses that can't strive for higher things if they have the freedom and resources. They aren't. Most people just grew up to assume being stupid is cool and that they could feel entitled to get everything pre-chewed and wrapped in 10 miles of idiot padding. They can do much more, if they have to or want to.

      Also, if you ever tried those translations systems, you'll know that it's not a low-level job at all, and it will still take a long time, before we don't need human translators anymore. If somebody has a business deal of any importance, you can bet your ass, that he won't risk losing it because he was too cheap to get a real human translator.

      Conclusion: Don't be so passive! You're not a machine that gets used and thrown away by companies at will. You have your own will. (Or at least you should.) Do something great with it! Be an individual! Otherwise, are you even really alive?

      • >> The goal here is, to free humanity from primitive low-level jobs, so that they can concentrate on cool and interesting challenges.

        The world needs ditch diggers too, Danny.

      • The goal here is, to free humanity from primitive low-level jobs, so that they can concentrate on cool and interesting challenges.

        Like diving through dumpsters for your next meal....

        Newsflash:

        a) the opportunities for truly "cool and interesting challenges" - as opposed to desperate rat-races with ever exponentially increasing demands for "education" and "retraining" and ever exponentially diminishing returns disguised as "challenges" - are orders of magnitude less than the population size. Only those who

        • by Rakishi (759894)

          Like diving through dumpsters for your next meal....

          Did you even read his post? Did the "offer unconditional base income (generated from those automated low-level jobs)" part somehow go over your head or did all the foam coming from your mouth block your vision?

          People like you complain about how many jobs are soul sucking jobs, about repetitive tasks that cause life long injuries, about dangerous jobs, about unskilled jobs that are easily replaced and so on and so on. Then when someone finds a way to get rid of the need for those, as you'd say inhumane, jobs

          • Did you even read his post? Did the "offer unconditional base income (generated from those automated low-level jobs)" part somehow go over your head or did all the foam coming from your mouth block your vision?

            That is the standard "carrot on the stick" cop-out offered by various apologists.

            Use your head! If Germany actually did it they would make Greece look like a maven of fiscal responsibility and frugal governance in a very short order.

            Also how would those "base income" recipients look like? Think "th

      • by tsotha (720379)

        The goal here is, to free humanity from primitive low-level jobs, so that they can concentrate on cool and interesting challenges.

        So, what will people on the left half of the bell curve do? People who only mix with university graduates don't think about it much, but there a whole lot of their fellow citizens have sub-100 IQs. For them, things like money management and showing up to work on time are interesting challenges. If we actually do manage to "free humanity from primitive low-level jobs" about hal

      • You're assuming people are dumbasses that can't strive for higher things if they have the freedom and resources. They aren't. Most people just grew up to assume being stupid is cool and that they could feel entitled to get everything pre-chewed and wrapped in 10 miles of idiot padding. They can do much more, if they have to or want to.

        Hm.

    • It seems that the devaluation of language skills would be a corollary of costs being cut.

      After all, if companies won't pay extra for language skills, why acquire them (while you're in high school)?

      Ironically, these sorts of apps may lead to lower levels of foreign language ability within a given society. Instead of having millions of French, Chinese, and German speakers in, say, the US, you would end up concentrating language skills in a few computer systems (Google's, Apples, maybe Wolfram's).

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Ironically, these sorts of apps may lead to lower levels of foreign language ability within a given society.

        Or it could do the opposite. Say I have a phone that translates Spanish/English because my Spanish is rusty and I go to Mexico. I'm going to hear the Mexican say "Qué es lo que quieres?" and the phone say "What do you want?" He'll hear me say "A beer, please" and then he'll hear the phone say "Un cervesa, por favor." After using it for a while, the rustiness would wear off.

        OT, but why did the

        • *Una cerveza.

          OT, but why did the not work? There should be an upside down question mark before the question, and it won't render.

          Ha, are you expecting Slashdot to handle weird stuff like the full set of HTML entities? We're lucky to get accents and not be restricted to pure ASCII.

          It was reasonable when it started; nowadays when everyone supports unicode, it's pitiful.

    • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:46AM (#41728021)

      Repeat until there are no jobs left.

      Too late. The Neolithic agricultural revolution already eliminated 90% of all hunter-gatherer jobs, and then the Industrial Revolution and mechanization of agriculture destroyed the few jobs that were left. Today, most people have nothing to do but sit around posting economic fallacies [wikipedia.org] on Slashdot.

      • It is only a "fallacy" until comes true.

        First of all economics is not a science but something akin to a bunch of voodoo followers and witch doctors trying to find "scientific" justification for their pre-conceived ideologies so one must take their opinion on what is and what is not a "fallacy" with a sizeable grain of salt.

        And then it is quite obvious that growth in "productivity" in the last 30 years in the most industrialized countries actually lowered (the actual as opposed to superficially perceived)

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Ever notice that none of these stories are ever written from the jobs perspective?

      "I lost my job because of technology!" -- John henry

      Others: I lost my job at the candle factory! I lost my job at the buggy whip factory! I lost my ferrier job! I lost my job at the auto plant to a robot!

      Every machine in existance does a job that a human once did. Before 1945, a computer was a human being whose job was to do math for ballistic firing tables, logarythmic tables, etc.

      You don't need as many carpenters to build a

    • by jovius (974690)

      The outcome will be beautiful, but I don't know, there needs to be sacrifices, and they are also great opportunities to learn something new. I expect that as the market expands there would be interest to actually hire translators to work with the technology, because of their practical knowledge and aptitude in language.

    • Re:"Cut Costs" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Monday October 22, 2012 @10:30AM (#41728455) Journal

      But that never seems to happen though.

      I was watching a TV programme called "The Mighty Micro" (it's available on YouTube), a 6-part documentary on the coming microprocessor made in the late 1970s by the BBC. It was interesting to see what predictions came true and which ones were wide of the mark. In the final programme, the pundits were predicting what would happen. Everything from the cashless society by the mid-1990s (didn't happen), to the prediction of massive easily accessible data (did happen), to huge reforms in education (partially happened).

      One prediction that was made that by the mid 1990s we would probably only be working 20 hours weeks, and society would have to shift to a model where we don't work much. However, the opposite has happened. Not only is the workforce larger than ever (Britain's workforce is probably double what it was in the late 1970s), unemployment is lower (in Britain, despite the workforce being twice the size of the late 70s workforce, the absolute number of unemployed is 1 million people fewer despite the worst recession in nearly a century), and many sections of the work force work longer hours than they used to. (Ironically, it's in the computer industry where the longer hours are more extreme, for example in the United States you're seen as a slacker unless you routinely work 60-80 hour weeks).

    • If you lost your job due to translation software, you were a shitty translator. No, really. Any serious translating (i.e., that goes beyond checking a box "we can do this!") requires highly skilled translators. And no, merely being fluent in the two languages is not enough. Translating also requires that you can map one expression to another quickly and smoothly, and that you can recreate subtle hints in the grammar structure, the setup of the sentences and other indirect modes of communication.

      That is hard

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday October 22, 2012 @08:54AM (#41727611)

    I'm still waiting for an english-only voice processing software package that can translate boston and texan accents, and god help you if you have a southern drawl, or english-as-a-second-language. Poor bastards who speak Russian can't 'V' to save their soul.

    • How is an English-only voice processor going to help you comprehend the strange utterances of southerners?

      • by vlm (69642)

        How is an English-only voice processor going to help you comprehend the strange utterances of southerners?

        Having lived in Alabama for awhile in the 90s, luckily they speak so blasted slow that you can devote twice, maybe three times as much processing power. Assuming the translator is processing limited.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Southerners? They sound funny but I have no problem understanding them. People from the northeast, especially Bwastun and Neuw Ywok, are completely unintelligible to me. I remember one (in hindsight) funny encounter with one of these incomprehensible folks, pointing to the bottom of the motorcycle and saying "Look at da ta!"

        "Look at the what?"

        "Da ta! Look at the ta!"

        "The tire?"

        "No, da ta!"

        I had no fucking clue that this guy meant "tar," he was referring to the kickstand sinking into the tar that had been so

    • Having to use a second language to work translation software may not be the end goal. When it can do Glaswegian you know it is working well.
      Dyer wanei wee piece weya'ships?
    • by Loki_666 (824073)

      Russians don't have a problem with V per se. V or Russian (veh) are not a problem at all... especially when they are trying to say W. When they want to say V though they say W.

      Its most baffling.

      The funniest bit is how they use H instead of G, when they have the perfectly serviceable (yes, it looks like eXs, its closer to cHa), so you get names like Garry Potter and Prince Garry..... can't say i've heard of either of those dudes, but Russians seem to think they are famous.

      • by Loki_666 (824073)

        Ah, and it looks like slashdot just removed my Cyrillic characters meaning my post is twice as confusing.

        Slashdot guys... its 2012... maybe you have heard of unicode?

  • Hope there will be a Welsh translation service it will make working for the UK Gov. much easier as everything including help lines has to be translated into Welsh as well as English :(
  • Sore de ganbattekudasai!

  • Don't worry humans (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vlm (69642) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:21AM (#41727811)

    limiting its use in some situations.

    Don't worry humans, most of you are not going to lose your translation job.

    We already limit human translators to "important" stuff only.

    The people most likely to lose their jobs are Indian call centers. Soon, you'll be "talking" to Bob at Dell who walks you thru power cycling your windows box, but he's actually in Afghanistan and doesn't speak a word of English. Also instead of telemarketing scum leaving messages on my answering machine, they'll be having Turing test conversations about how I should vote for any politician but Johnson (whom I am voting for).

    I'm sure there will be a contractual limitation not to do anything important with the service "So I'm not telling ya all, that ya all can't not shut off the backup reactor cooling pump disabling relay..." WTF does that mean in English much less Japanese? So... no critical infrastructure support, no medical, no legal, no engineering, no management, no HR, no accounting... whats left other than telemarketing and call centers?

  • *call from hungary*
    - Hello?
    - This record is scratched.
    ....
    - My hovercraft... is full of eels!
  • Meme time (Score:4, Funny)

    by Luckyo (1726890) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:34AM (#41727913)

    I wonder what you'll have to say into the phone in japanese to get "all your base belong to us" out of it.

    • by Luckyo (1726890)

      And of course, I forget how the actual phrase went. "All your base are belong to us".

      Sigh.

  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:41AM (#41727975) Journal

    IF you translate between Japanese and English it would be FAR FAR FAR easier to do it with text first. Have you seen some of the translations google comes up with? Often it ain't even good enough to get the gist of the original message, let alone be good enough to carry a conversation.

    With speech to speech translation, you got to first have proper voice regonization, a far from perfect technology, then have good translation, which doesn't yet exist especially for such totally different languages as japanese/english. And then you got have good text to speech. Which ALSO still isn't anything to write home about or computer game would use it to be able to forgo voice acting and have far more flexible scripts including usage of player chosen names.

    Combine all three and engrish.com better get some extra hosting to store all the hilarious screwups.

    The reason Japanese/English is so hard to translate is that the languages are completely different in which the way you say something and what information is included/excluded is totally different. And then people make it worse by leaving things out they expect someone from their own circle to know but that someone from another culture needs to make things clear. How would you translate 'dude'. And yes I know that is a lousy example of hip and happening street talk but I am a nerd, what do I know of being hip. But the translating engine better knows or you are going to get a tower of babel.

    If this new solution magically improve all three fields needed to an as yet unheard of standard, it would be amazing. I doubt it, but it would be amazing.

    Now just convince the japanese to stop putting all the text on their webpages in images and we might actually be able to make the world a bit smaller. Oh and get companies to make deal with global payment services so anyone can use their local payment system to pay anywhere in the world.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How would you translate 'dude'.

      Omae?

    • by LeeMeador (924391)
      If you think about it, there are some interesting differences in understanding audio speech and written text. Think about English. In audio the problem is telling "synthetic" from "sin the tick" or some such phrase and there are no punctuation marks to delineate the sentences. In text the problem is telling "read" from "read" (the 2nd is past tense). Of course, there are a zillion (or so) such problems in just understanding things. You can use context to disambiguate. But the problems are different for text
  • My prediction: crap. (Score:5, Informative)

    by OldSport (2677879) on Monday October 22, 2012 @09:49AM (#41728035)

    I currently use the best commercial voice recognition software, and have experience with a variety of machine translation suites that do Japanese-English, so I have somewhat of a frame of reference.

    With respect to the former, the quality is quite good. I can speak at a relatively natural pace and get upwards of 95% accuracy. That said, I still have to adjust my speech in a sometimes unnatural manner to be sure the program "hears" me correctly, and I have heard horror stories from people with different accents/dialects having a terrible time. (Someone made a joke about Welsh, but I know a Welsh fellow and he had some colorful things to say about the commercially-available VR programs.) An additional complicating factor in the J-E scenario is that Japanese has many words that sound nearly identical, and are distinguished only by slight inflections: (hashi; chopsticks) and (hashi; bridge) is a typical example. There are thousands of examples of such words, and from what I understand, Japanese voice recognition software is quite far behind because of this particular trait. Without a UI for speakers to choose which word they are actually trying to say, I can imagine that the VR side of this program has a slew of problems.

    Now, onto machine translation. As it stands, MT works great for some language pairs, but Japanese-English is notoriously problematic. AFAIK part of the reason is the highly contextual nature of the Japanese language. Subjects and objects are often omitted entirely, for example. I don't really have to go into this in detail -- just run any Japanese Wikipedia article through Google translate and see what happens. Other commercially-available and proprietary software I've used has been basically the same (Google actually seems to be a bit better, usually.) English-Japanese is a bit easier because the context (subjects, objects, verbs) are typically "all there" -- so even if the result is Japanese that is horribly unnatural, you may still be able to get the info you need.

    But now, they're going to take the VR-generated input of varying degrees of accuracy, and run THAT through MT software that butchers even the most simple and perfect sentences? I could be wrong, but I'm having trouble seeing how the result will be anything less than a disaster. "The software involved cannot offer perfect translations, limiting its use in some situations" sounds like the understatement of the year. Get ready for synthesized-voice gobbeldygook and an mp3 website called "spoken Engrish."

    (Full disclosure: I am a translator, but in a lot of ways a yearn for the day when MT will be good enough to put me out of a job; I think the idea of people being able to instantly communicate with speakers of other languages is exciting and would lead to a much more open world. However, I've been hearing that tech like this is 3-5 years away for decades now. If this product showcased a revolutionary engine for MT, then I would be singing a different tune, but for now it seems like a mere combination of two imperfect technologies.)

    • by gajop (1285284)

      It's not just the lack of subjects/objects in Japanese that causes a problem with (machine) translations, it's also the different sentence format.
      English, as well as many other European languages use the Subject-Verb-Object form, while Japanese uses the Subject-Object-Verb form.
      I've also seen translators having trouble with negative sentences or modal forms (can/must/must not/can not), f.e: http://translationparty.com/#10538744 [translationparty.com] Japanese, as I've heard those share a similar grammar.

      • by gajop (1285284)

        Odd... a part of my text disappeared:
        However, humans don't have such a hard time with grammar, it can usually be picked up quite fast (in comparison to learning a whole new vocab and a "hard" character set). As far as these languages are concerned, it's all about vocab, and if it can pick it up and infer proper meaning from context, it could be useful. It may even work better for Korean Japanese, as I've heard those share a similar grammar.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The sentence format shouldn't be a problem as long as both languages are internally consistent. Missing information is a much bigger deal. And Japanese is a worse than average language about leaving things to be implied by context.

    • by vovick (1397387)

      I want to say that your post was very enlightening to me (I'm a self-learner). Until now I did not know about the pitch accent in Japanese and thought that it was impossible to distinguish words written the same way in Kana if they were taken out of context. Getting the right word from the context doesn't seem to be this hard from the first glance, actually, since most words with the same writing have very different meanings and can be distinguished by analysing n-gram frequencies or using other similar tec

    • by tsotha (720379)

      An additional complicating factor in the J-E scenario is that Japanese has many words that sound nearly identical, and are distinguished only by slight inflections: (hashi; chopsticks) and (hashi; bridge) is a typical example

      Hah. Ask a Mandarin speaker how to say "Does the mother scold the horse?"

      Every language has homonyms and near-homonyms. A Japanese friend who is a relatively fluent English speaker is continually tripped up by there/their/they're, especially when more than one form appears in the same

  • The author originally wanted to use the New York Yankees as the focus... However, he was unable to capture enough examples of the Yankees making contact with a baseball during the ALCS to complete the study. ha
  • Reading about this made me want to reread this classic cyber-punk novel

  • I doubt it will produce anything useful for anything more complicated than, "Hello. How may I help you?"

    Ever use Google translate for Japanese -> English or English -> Japanese ? Word salad is typically the result.

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