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Towards My Universal Translator

my universal translator

I would love to have Lt. Uhura in my radio room as my universal translator. Then I could understand all the foreign language SWBC broadcasts.

As a Star Trek fan, I noted the passing of Nichelle Nichols at age 89 earlier this summer. That got me thinking how wonderful it would be to have my universal translator on the bridge.

You have probably noticed that shortwave stations have far fewer English language broadcasts these days. So, I can receive tons of stations, but understand very few of them. Interestingly, China Radio International is probably the most prolific English language broadcaster, but I can still get BBC in occasional English format.

While the Star Trek universal translator will always be a bridge too far, we are getting much closer for Earth-based languages.

When I started looking around, I was amazed at how far natural language processing has advanced over the past decade. We are now at the point where almost everyone has a useful translation app on their smart phone. Typically these do text translation, but more and more we are seeing apps where you speak into your phone and it provides a voice translation.

We have over 6,000 languages on Earth, with 300 having more than a million native speakers. At present, we have dozens of language pairs where AI does a pretty good job of both short and long form translation. Increasingly, listeners can record a long lecture, have it translated to another language, and retain a text transcript they can better understand.

My Universal Translator – Uhura on my PC

So, this is the first time I have written about speech translation for SWBC. I am at the very beginning of what might be an interesting journey.

Here’s my vision. I want to build (or obtain) an application I will call Uhura. She will listen to audio from my software defined radio, probably over a virtual audio cable. Then, I want her to upload (stream) the foreign language audio to a cloud translation service, which are popping up like mad. A second later, translated English text will appear on the screen.

Wouldn’t this be wonderful if SWBC listeners could understand foreign language broadcasts, regardless of language? This may be a long term project and beyond my scope, but maybe not. Let’s see if I can translate this vision into reality.


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