Google Has Not Solved Human Misunderstanding

But with a new update to its Translate app, it's getting closer.

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Back in 1979, when the British humorist Douglas Adams launched his hapless protagonist Arthur Dent on a hitchhiking tour of the galaxy, he invented a fictional solution to the mutual incomprehensibility of the universe's dialects. The Babel fish was a "small, yellow and leechlike" creature that, stuck in your ear, would allow you to "instantly understand anything said to you in any form or language." After suddenly finding himself on a Vogon space ship, Dent manages to decipher the captain's announcements from the flight deck—though this understanding came at the cost of the "sickening sensation" of the Babel fish "slithering deep into his aural tract."

Here on Earth on Wednesday, Google released the latest update to its translate app.

The app doesn't speak Vogon, but it does do a few new things. Previous versions have let you speak a phrase into your phone and have the phrase translated back to you in a language you selected. The update makes bilingual conversations faster by detecting which of two languages is being spoken at a time. As The New York Times envisioned one potential application, if you wanted to order a pizza in Spanish, you would put “your lips in awkward proximity to the phone’s microphone,” in essence telling the phone your order; your phone in turn would “spit out the question in Spanish” to your Spanish-speaking waiter. The waiter then, presumably, would address the phone, which would detect that he was speaking Spanish and tell you what he said. Not much different from what the app could do before, but faster—which Google interprets as taking "us one step closer to turning your phone into a universal translator and to a world where language is no longer a barrier to discovering information or connecting with each other."

The app can also translate text—as on a sign or a menu—in real time via your phone’s camera. (You used to have to take a picture of the words and wait for a translation.) Pretty neat, though it’s worth noting that Google's demonstration GIF seems to be of a person standing still in front of a sign—it's not clear how well this would function if you were zipping down some Tuscan autostrada looking for the nearest place to pull over and use the bagno.

Regardless, the update is a cooler, quicker version of something Google has been doing for a while, which is expanding the definition of what “search” means. The underlying process of matching the world's information supply with specific human demands remains the same. But the expression of that demand has grown from typing words into a search bar to holding up your phone in front of something in the world to find out what it’s trying to tell you.

The Times notes the app update's limitations, including that in tests it worked "best with short, jargon-free sentences and required a healthy pause between translations"; still, the reviewer concludes that it has removed "one more brick out of the language barrier." That barrier is one that in Douglas Adams's galaxy was actually a protective one—the "poor Babel fish," he wrote, "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." Humans (and Vogons) probably don't have to worry about that for a few more updates. In the meantime, it might be a little easier to order pizza.