Tuesday, April 18, 2017

One More Step For Mankind: Breaking the Language Barrier

 by Samantha Perry

Spring 2017 Intern

In our previous blog about language barriers, former intern Nora Chan went into detail about Google’s translation app, which features a voice-to-text translation option. Nora highlighted the app’s contribution to travel with its ability to translate the sound of your mother tongue into a written translation of another language. Although trying to communicate in a foreign country can be part of the fun and excitement of travel, the fear and anxiety of not knowing the language can put a stop to some great adventures. During a trip to Italy, I had my share of both experiences, finding fun in the challenge of ordering a pizza in broken Italian one day and then dreading the thought of asking for directions to the correct bus station the next.

Luckily, destroying language barriers seems to be a common goal for some new innovations. While translation apps can fit in your pocket, Ili comes in the form of a large flash drive you can wear around your neck or on a keychain. Ili translates and repeats phrases back, which saves you the embarrassment of butchering the pronunciation of the words and ruining the entire interaction. It does not require an internet connection and is voice activated. A downloadable phrasebook is included, equipped with common travel interactions that also offer a chance to learn the new language. The first installment of Ili is only available for English, Japanese and Chinese in order to provide the most accurate translations of each language, but future updates will include more language options.

The Pilot works in a similar way as Ili, but rather than fitting like a piece of jewelry, the Pilot fits in the perfect place for a translator: your ears. Coming in three different colors of wireless ear buds, the Pilot earpiece filters out excess noise and, via its app, sends translations directly to your ear. The Pilot app can also serve as a phrasebook and is equipped with several languages—English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Like the Ili, the Pilot aims to have more languages available in the next installment, once precise translations are ensured. These ear buds are the kind of technology that used to exist only in science fiction.

Of course, there are many challenges to tackle with translation software. Slang, for instance, can certainly gum up the works of translation, as Andrew Lauder found out during his app’s construction. Vocre Translate is a voice and text translation app that is able to translate simple words when you speak into the app. In order to account for nuanced meanings of certain words, Lauder turned to using common word usage rather than simple text-to-text translations by compiling data from public domain recordings. Based on the patterns found in the data, rules for the fluidity of spoken language were created for Vocre Translate software.

With these kinds of devices, language barriers might become obsolete and language will be portable. I wonder what science fiction tech is next in the pipeline?

Did You Know?
A team of inventors in Sweden is developing a headset that will translate what a dog is thinking. Using brain wave signals collected through sensors on the headpiece, the data will be translated into phrases. I’m sure “what’s this thing on my head?” will be a common one.

Photo Credit: Tsz Yan Tong

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Starshot’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Sarah Rush
Spring 2017 Intern

Remember those glow-in-the-dark stars, moons and planets you could stick onto your bedroom ceiling? I do—I used to fall asleep below them, dreaming of outer space and galaxies filled with strange planets and even stranger life-forms. I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy, and movies like The Fifth Element and the Star Wars series left me thirsting to see deep space travel become a reality. But when I consider just how far even a single light-year is (try to imagine nearly six trillion miles of mostly empty space!), my hopes are dashed. How could any man-made spacecraft travel so far in a reasonable time?

Introducing Breakthrough Starshot, a research program developed by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner along with Stephen Hawking and other scientists. The program is designed to send lightweight spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, to collect primary data about it for the first time in human history. The system consists of two stars and a red dwarf, and lies “only” 4.37 light-years away. To cross this incredible distance—over 26 trillion miles—the spacecraft must travel at a reasonable fraction of the speed of light or it would take thousands of years to reach our celestial neighbor.

The solution lies in the evolving technology of the nanocraft: a one-gram computer chip equipped with cameras and other hardware attached to a laser sail, a special fabric that can withstand extreme temperatures. Thousands of these spacecraft would be launched into space. An arrangement of lasers nearly a mile across would then shoot powerful beams from Earth at the sails to heat them up, causing them to propel toward Alpha Centauri at about 20 percent the speed of light. (Check out a simulation of the project here!)

It’ll still take nearly 20 years for the nanocraft to reach Alpha Centauri, but once they do, they’ll take pictures and collect other indispensible data about the star system. Some scientists even believe that planets might exist somewhere in the system!

If the program sounds too good to be true, that’s because right now, it is. Achieving the project would cost billions of dollars, and it is predicted to take 20 more years of research and development before the launch even becomes a possibility.

But for those science fiction fans out there like me, we’ll hold our breath in the hope that Breakthrough Starshot becomes a reality, and that many of the mysteries of Alpha Centauri are solved. If Breakthrough Starshot is a success, just imagine where else we could explore!

Did You Know?
Engineers have developed solar roadways, roads paved in solar panels. The roads are designed to generate solar energy, charge electric cars and make driving safer—they contain LED lights for road signs as well as heating elements to melt snow and ice. While some doubt its durability and cost efficiency, others hope that solar roadways might eventually replace traditional pavement.