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Google has a 'near perfect' universal translator -- for Portuguese, at least

The company's Android product head says Google has prototypes of a device that will one day erase language barriers.

Google aims to make a universal translator like the one from Star Trek, sans the flashlight form factor.
CBS Television Studios / Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Google continues its efforts to bring us the world of "Star Trek" and life on the U.S.S. Enterprise four centuries ahead of schedule -- minus the really hard stuff like the warp drive. The company's latest effort along these lines, according to Android product guru Hugo Barra, is a real-time universal translator.

Barra told the U.K. Times that "several years" from now, he envisions devices (likely Android phones or something similar) that allow people to travel around the globe without having to be concerned about language barriers. Barra also spoke of the ability for calls to be translated from one language to another in real time, so that a person on one end of the call might speak in English, and that speech would then be instantly translated into Portuguese for the person listening on the other end in Sao Paulo.

In fact, English and Portuguese was one language pairing that Barra specifically cited as already providing "near perfect" translations on Google's prototype devices. Translation from Mandarin to the recently extinct Eyak language of southeast Alaska? Yea, that might be a little trickier.

Before we go praising Google for another forward-thinking humanitarian initiative, it's worth noting that the ability to listen to and translate countless conversations across the world amounts to a brand new mountain of data for the company to parse for ad targeting and other revenue-generating possibilities.

Also, Google might not be the first to master instant translation. I recently was given a demonstration of a similar instant real-time translation service for phone calls from an Israel-based startup called Lexifone that's not only available right now, it's also pretty cheap and accurate, if a little jarring (the translation essentially adds two loudmouth digital voices to a phone call).

Nonetheless, I'd certainly welcome a universal translator feature integrated into Android at some point in the future, particularly if it does a better job than the current crop of third-party translation apps, most of which suffer from subpar speech recognition. Perfecting speech recognition is one area where Google already has a significant investment with its all-in approach to Google Now.

Perhaps by the end of the several years that Barra mentions, we'll not only see perfected universal translators, but the full-blown "Star Trek" computer that people at Google seem to be so obsessed with.