While his tea cools, Josh stares out the window at the imposing mountain not far off, the one described in the novel he’s been reading and rereading for years. The cafe’s crowded, but the conversations, beautiful and strange, wash over him. Josh is alone, but not lonely. When he next looks up from his book, however, someone’s across from him, speaking. At first, the words are unintelligible, and Josh shakes his head back and forth while he slips a tiny cylinder into each ear. Then, the language become familiar, and Josh catches the tail-end of a sentence: “… my favorite book.”
“This one?” Josh asks, holding it up.
“Mine too,” he says. “It’s a translation, of course, but I must’ve read it a dozen times.”
His new friend smiles. “Which translator: Google or Amazon?”
Eventually, technology optimists argue, humans will be able to read a machine-translated version of any book no matter how obscure its original language. This has long been the dream among A.I. enthusiasts. Translation was one of the earliest non-numeric problems that computer programmers tackled, and in 1954, Georgetown and IBM co-released the first significant machine translator, capable of translating from Russian into English such sexy sentences as, “Magnitude of angle is determined by the relation of length of arc to radius.” In total, the program knew 60 sentences, adhered to six grammar rules, and stored 250 vocabulary words. Responding to a dazzled public, the authors predicted that the problems of machine translation would be solved in three to five years. Ten years later, a report from the National Academy of Sciences condemned the project as colossally disappointing, and its funding was cut.