Once the stuff of science fiction, technology that enables people to talk using different languages is now here. But how effective is it?
Noise, Alex Waibel tells me, is one of the major challenges that artificial speech translation has to meet. A device may be able to recognise speech in a laboratory, or a meeting room, but will struggle to cope with the kind of background noise I can hear surrounding Professor Waibel as he speaks to me from Kyoto station. I’m struggling to follow him in English, on a scratchy line that reminds me we are nearly 10,000km apart – and that distance is still an obstacle to communication even if you’re speaking the same language. We haven’t reached the future yet.
If we had, Waibel would have been able to speak in his native German and I would have been able to hear his words in English. He would also be able to converse hands-free and seamlessly with the Japanese people around him, with all parties speaking their native language.