Machines, Lost In Translation: The Dream Of Universal Understanding

Developing a universal translator means teaching a computer to think like a human. Annette Elizabeth Allen/NPR hide caption toggle caption Annette Elizabeth Allen/NPR It was early 1954 when computer scientists, for the first time, publicly revealed a machine that could translate between human languages. It became known as the Georgetown-IBM experiment: an “electronic brain” that translated sentences from Russian into English. The scientists believed a universal translator, once developed, would not only give Americans a security edge over the Soviets, but also promote world peace by eliminating language barriers. They also believed this kind of progress was just around the corner: Leon Dostert, the Georgetown language scholar who initiated the collaboration with IBM founder Thomas Watson, suggested that people may be able to use electronic translators to bridge several languages…


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