To boldy go where no phone has gone before

WERE Gene Roddenberry and his fellow Star Trek creators exceptionally gifted at seeing into the future?

Aidan Semmens

WERE Gene Roddenberry and his fellow Star Trek creators exceptionally gifted at seeing into the future? Or did their vision so captivate the young minds of future developers that they helped shape the world to come?

Were those flip-open communicators used by Messrs Spock and Kirk a smart prediction? Or did they in fact influence the later design of mobile phones?

My money's on the latter. And if it comes off - no, make that when it comes off - I think we'll have the late, great Douglas Adams partly to thank for the next truly world-changing advance in phone technology.

An advance that will make the flip-open pocket-sized handset seem quaint and almost medieval.

It was always one of the quirks of the Star Trek universe that those boldly going humans seemed able to converse easily with all the humanoid aliens they encountered on all those new worlds.

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The explanation for it was the universal translator. A nice neat fiction produced simply to paper over an obvious credibility gap.

The idea was developed delightfully by Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with the invention of the babelfish.

This small, yellow, leech-like creature lives in the ear canal of larger creatures, such as man. There, as a by-product of its own mysterious nutrition process, it converts speech patterns into brainwaves. And so it acts as a real-time universal translator.

Brilliant. And not wholly credible. Yet, like so much of Adams's weird world, not wholly in-credible either.

The idea of being able to translate instantly and seamlessly between, say, Vogon and Golgafrinchan - or Gaelic and Hungarian - is so irresistible someone clever was bound to try to make it reality.

My grandmother was pretty good.

In 1945-46, she was employed as a translator at the Nuremberg trials.

As the chief surviving Nazi war criminals faced world justice, evidence was heard in a variety of European languages. Without reliable simultaneous translators, the whole process would have become almost impossibly unwieldy.

Which is how my grandmother, equipped with headphones and microphone, was able to put her fluency in English, Russian, German, French and Yiddish to good use.

As I said, pretty good - to me, awe-inspiring. Not many people could have done that.

But no one could ever have done what Google is promising for a future generation of phones.

Real-time translation between 6,000 languages.

Pick up a phone in Ipswich, speak into it in English, and have a conversation with someone speaking Japanese in Tokyo. Or Bengali in Kolkata. Or Swahili in Stowmarket. Or whatever, wherever.

Mind-blowing. And among all the ever-growing array of communications technology on offer, something actually worth having.

For that to be so, though, it will have to be a great deal better than some of the automated translation services currently on offer, clever though they are.

I had occasion the other day to translate a short Bible passage from English into Chinese (don't ask).

Since I know no Chinese I used the online Babelfish service (and you know where that got its name from).

And just to check what I was sending, I used the same system to translate the message back.

The phrase “our virgins are defiled” returned as “our loyal female volleyball team becomes the tandem advance”.

Entertaining maybe, but not very Biblical. And hardly guaranteed to increase the sum of human understanding.

Google's own translator does, admittedly, do better. From the same original phrase it produces: “Has tarnished our virgin.”

A lot closer, but still no cigar.

Nevertheless Franz Och, the company's head of translation services, is confident.

He says: “We think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years' time.”

I rather hope he's right - even if it does mean another major step along Google's route to world domination.

Maybe, though, we should heed Douglas Adams's warning: “The poor babelfish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

A case of 'be careful what you wish for'?

Nous verrons. Zobaczymy. We shall see.