Baidu’s pocket translator is a ‘Star Trek’ dream come to life

Chinese search giant Baidu has long been investing in artificial intelligence research, whether it’s hiring away the creator of the Google Brain project, building autonomous cars or creating a recent A.I. which can mimic your voice after listening to it for only a short period of time. At this week’s MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco, Baidu gave a demo of one of its most impressive consumer-facing examples of A.I. to date: A Star Trek-style pocket universal translator that is able to translate spoken sentences from English into Mandarin and back again.

Shown off on stage, the device was used to facilitate a conversation between English speaking senior editor Will Knight and Baidu chief scientist Hua Wu. The device appears to be capable of easily translating questions like “Where can I buy this device?” and “When will machines replace humans?” into Mandarin, and the Mandarin language responses back into English. To do this, it draws on Baidu’s deep-learning neural networks: The same technology which drives Google’s ever-improving machine translation and voice-recognition technology.

The gadget has reportedly been available since December, although right now it can only be leased at travel agencies and airports in China. Its immediate goal is to use its English, Chinese and Japanese translations (more languages will follow in the future) to help people navigate around cities. However, MIT Technology Review claims that other markets are planned for expansion in the future — hopefully meaning that it won’t be too long before we can get our hands on one of these devices.

While a number of mobile devices can carry out impressive machine translation at present, that doesn’t diminish how impressive Baidu’s achievement is. Not only does it underline how successful the company has been at taking on the Silicon Valley tech giants, but its apparently straightforward ease of use absolutely makes this a gadget we would be interested in picking up. Especially if, at some point, Baidu can combine this with its aforementioned voice soundalike technology.

Along with Google’s in-ear translation earbuds, it seems that we’re living in an incredibly exciting time for machine translation.