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Microsoft translation app vaults over language barriers

A group speaking nine different languages can hold a conversation together -- with help from a Microsoft app on their phones.

At places like schools, hotels and tourist attractions, Microsoft Translator can help up to 100 people hold a live conversation in nine different languages.
At places like schools, hotels and tourist attractions, Microsoft Translator can help up to 100 people hold a live conversation in nine different languages.

Imagine you're on a guided tour in Chartres cathedral in France along with tourists from Brazil, China, Russia and Germany -- but none of you speaks French. For the last few decades, you'd each need your own tour guide. A new app from Microsoft aims to flatten this multilanguage barrier, though.

The Microsoft Translator app, running on your phone but relying on a network to Microsoft's servers, can translate your tour guide's words into eight other languages. And it'll translate all the other directions too, so when you ask a question in English, everybody else will understand it as well.

The new Microsoft Translator app arrived Tuesday, a notable new achievement for machine translation. For comparison, the Google Translate app and Microsoft's Skype Translator can handle only a two-person conversation.

It's a great time to be a bewildered foreigner. If you're traveling, you can take multiple apps with you. Google Translate can work offline with 52 languages, translate the text your phone camera sees, and understand when you draw script characters on your screen if you have no idea how to use a Chinese keyboard. The Microsoft Translator app runs on Apple iPhones and rival models powered by Google's Android software, but it also works in conjunction with Apple Watches and Android Wear watches.

Microsoft Translator's group translation mode is a new demonstration of the power of artificial intelligence, a technology that swept the computing industry in 2016 as years of academic research finally blossomed into real-world products and services. This fundamentally different form of computing is giving computers a way to handle the complexities and subtleties of human interaction.

Microsoft uses a machine learning technique based on a form of computing called neural networks inspired by human brains. It learns how to translate based on real-world speech, not rules programmed in advance. One nice benefit of the approach: The more people use it, the better it gets.

With spoken conversation, Microsoft Translator can accommodate a group of up to 100 speakers and nine languages: Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, French, German, Russian, Portuguese and Italian. With written text, the translation expands to reach 50 languages, the company said.

One real-world customer is the Children's Society, a London charity that helps impoverished kids. It uses the app to communicate with refugees and immigrants, Microsoft said. The company also used it to help people who don't speak English apply for state-issued identification cards in New York. For a look at how it works, check the Microsoft Translator promotional video.