The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written in 1978, features an animal called the Babel fish - “small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe… if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”.  

The etymology is from Genesis and The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  In that passage, all of humanity had a common language - and using that language decided that they would build a city with a tower that reached to the heavens.  As this was a threat to divinity, they were scattered and their language confused:

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”- Genesis 11:6-7

I’ve been using Google Translate for years now to communicate with family in South America (to say my Spanish is limited would be generous), and it’s a fascinating case study in Big Data.  But I’ve been also following Microsoft Research’s work in this space since their early preview of the technology on the Microsoft Research blog.  What they have been working on is a powerful combination of three major technology advancements:

  1. Speech to Text;
  2. Automated Translation; and
  3. Text to Speech.

When you join these three technologies and add them into a well-adopted communications technology, you have a babel fish - and Microsoft has announced that they’ll be launching one n the form of “Skype Translator”, which will translate spoken languages in close to real time.  (And answer the question about why Microsoft bought Skype).

I talk and think a lot about disruptive technologies and the future of work, and it strikes me that a common theme in these technologies is that they are removing artificial barriers to location, time, cost, or access.  A true babel fish would remove all of them.  Although there are technologies that I believe will change a swath of industries over the coming years - 3D Printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data amongst them - it’s possible that at a global scale, removing global language barriers might yield the most profound changes of all of these.

The convergence of these technologies with online labor platforms and remote work make a truly global workforce possible, if not likely - how will it affect your organisation?  What about your life?  Let's go back to that quote from Genesis - "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."  Technologies like this truly open up new possibilities for people, organisations, and society.

p.s. You can see a video of Microsoft Translator in action here, and sign up for the early preview here.

Picture: The Booth, Ryan Maguire

Update: Techcrunch reports that the invite-only preview opens today