Meta is building a universal speech translator

It’s not without its downfall, though.

words by: Sahar Khraibani
Apr 5, 2022

Meta has unveiled a new AI research translator aimed at developing translation software that can be used by “everyone on the planet.” The initiative was announced as part of an event highlighting the broad variety of benefits Meta believes AI may provide for its metaverse goals.


In an online presentation, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “The ability to communicate with anyone in any language — that’s a superpower people have dreamed of forever, and AI is going to deliver that within our lifetimes.”


Although current translation technologies cater to popularly spoken languages such as English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, the company claims that around 20% of the world’s population does not speak languages covered by these systems. Often, these underserved languages lack easy access to the corpora of written material required to train AI systems, or they lack a defined writing system altogether.


Meta claims it will address these issues by employing new machine learning algorithms in two areas. The initial focus, branded No Language Left Behind, will be on developing AI models that can learn to translate language with fewer examples of training. The second, Universal Speech Translator, aims to develop systems that can immediately translate speech from one language to another in real-time without the requirement for a written component (a common technique for many translation apps).


Meta researchers did not provide a timeline for finishing these initiatives or even a plan for important milestones in accomplishing their aim in a blog post announcing the findings. Instead, the firm emphasized universal language translation’s utopian potential.


Most importantly, Meta believes that such technology would greatly enhance its global goods, expanding their reach and transforming them into an indispensable communication tools for millions. Universal translation software, according to the blog post, would be a killer app for future wearable devices like AR glasses (which Meta is developing), as well as breaking down barriers in “immersive” VR and AR reality worlds (which Meta is also building).


To put it another way, while building universal translation tools may benefit humanity, it also makes good commercial sense for a company like Meta.


It’s true that breakthroughs in machine learning have greatly increased the speed and accuracy of machine translation in recent years. A number of large digital businesses, ranging from Google to Apple, now provide free AI translation tools to users, which may be used for work or tourism, and which definitely generate incalculable benefits all over the world.


But the underlying technology has flaws as well, with detractors claiming that machine translation ignores nuances important to human speakers, introduces gender bias into its outputs, and is capable of producing the strange, unexpected errors that only a computer can produce. Some speakers of rare languages express concern about losing control of their language and culture if the ability to translate their words is completely controlled by big tech.


While a universal translator is an incredible goal, Meta will have to demonstrate not just that its technology is up to the challenge, but also that it can use its findings equitably as a firm.


Meta also has plans to open physical stores in the near future, maybe we’ll be able to get a firsthand demonstration of this translator in action.


Photo via BGR India