Universal translator a possibility?

Rosetta Stone replica Star Trek‘s various starship crews seldom have any trouble talking to aliens, thanks to a nifty device known as a “universal translator.” Although the universal translator was invented, like the transporter, simply because it was the only practical way to tell a story originally sold as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it might actually be possible to build one. (Via KurzweilAI.net.)

So says Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US, who argues that no matter how alien a species might be, its language–even if it communicates via, say, scent–must still describe real objects in the real world, which means there must be an underlying universal code that, given enough knowledge about language and sufficient computing power, could be deciphered.

Deacon presented his idea on April 17 at the 2008 Astrobiology Science Conference in Santa Clara, California.

New Scientist notes:

Testing the theory might be tough because we would have to make contact with aliens advanced enough to engage in abstract thinking and the use of linguistic symbols. But Denise Herzing of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, US, points out that we might be able to test it by studying dolphins.

“Our work suggests that dolphins may be able to communicate using symbols,” Herzing told New Scientist. “The word’s not definitively in yet, but it’s totally possible that we might show universality by understanding dolphin language.”

New Scientist compares the proposed device to Douglas Adams‘s “babelfish,” a fish that translates languages. One hopes that if we do learn to understand dolphin language, the only thing they say to us, before decamping from the planet, isn’t “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]Star Trek,language,extraterrestrial intelligence,aliens[/tags]

6 thoughts on “Universal translator a possibility?”

  1. Isn’t Apple submitting a business method patent on the idea of two people/species sharing “favorites” via some kind of universal translator?

  2. i notice you didn’t make “babelfish” a hotlink. my point? we can’t even translate human languages half decently, let alone dolphins or – yeah, right – aliens.

  3. Pete,

    I suspect you’re right, since I’m not at all sure what you’re trying to communicate right now. To what, exactly, should “babelfish” be linked to?

  4. well.. sometimes it amazes me how we seem to coming a full circle. I’m an indian, and for those who dont know, we guys come with an endless baggage of stories, myths and folklores.. all of them more or less deep rooted in numerous religions.. One wonders how people actually used to survive in those days without such technological advancements.. some of my friends take pride in terming them as pre-historic geeks.. but the term seems to create a respect of its own now.. if one takes the pains of going through some of these stories, you realise that technology is infact becoming a part of us, an extension of our living self. for eg. in Jainism, there’s a phenomen called Jinvaani(sermon, if you want me to objectify it), which the god says after years of penance, just before he attains moksha(liberation). Now there are a lot of creatures who end up hearing it.. ranging from animals, to insects, birds and humans.. the myth is that each creature hears it in its own language.. well.. talking of a universal translator that is..

  5. Ed: I suspect Pete refers to Altavista’s Babelfish translation engine … though in its defence I’d say its not bad considering it’s a free web-based service.

    Ayush: thanks for sharing! I’m a sucker for polytheistic myths, and now I’ll have to go read up on Jainism when I next have a spare moment! Have you read River Of Gods by Ian McDonald?

  6. Paul,

    Oh, I’d forgotten they called it that. That makes more sense.


    The Bible contains something similar, of course: on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, they start talking to the crowds and everyone hears them in their own language. It’s God as universal translator. I wonder if that theme crops up in other religions and myths?

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