Exclusive: Amazon aims to turn Alexa into a real-time universal language translator

Chief Tech Correspondent
Yahoo Finance

Amazon (AMZN) wants to make Alexa, the popular voice-enabled assistant, a context-savvy, real-time universal language translator, Yahoo Finance has learned.

According to several sources familiar with the matter, the Alexa group at Amazon is “seriously exploring” ways to make Alexa more useful across different languages and cultures. One way it plans to do that is by introducing the ability for Alexa to translate languages in a more sophisticated manner, beyond the basic words and short phrases it can already translate in different languages including Spanish, German, French and Italian. Amazon wants to turn Alexa into a multilingual assistant who can help in almost any situation. Amazon did not comment immediately.

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For instance,  if a person from the U.S., who only speaks English, attends a wedding in Tokyo and doesn’t speak Japanese, Alexa would be able to help that person hold a conversation in Japanese. Alexa would have an understanding of the Japanese culture, which is generally more formal and conservative than American culture and would incorporate its knowledge into translations. For example, asking the virtual assistant, “Alexa, what do I say to the father of the bride at a wedding in Japan?” would solicit a different response and tone from Alexa than if you asked the assistant ”What do I say to the master of ceremonies at a wedding in Japan?” The understanding being that remarks you make to the father of the bride would be more formal and reverential than to the wedding’s master of ceremony.

In another scenario, Alexa could help a traveler entering a restaurant for the first time in India with the question, “Alexa, I just entered a restaurant in New Delhi. Who should I talk to and what do I say to get a table?”

“The cross-culture, cross-language piece is going to be big for Amazon and Alexa, and it has a lot of potential,” one source familiar with the matter told Yahoo Finance.

Big ambitions for Alexa

Sources also told Yahoo Finance that Amazon would like to get Alexa to a point where it’s translating languages for users through any device on-the-fly. In other words, Alexa could one day translate what the father of the bride at that wedding in Japan says into your native language as he’s speaking in real-time. Alexa would also one day be able to translate conversations with multiple people speaking in different languages at one setting.

Such a move makes sense for Alexa, which Amazon has long said would evolve into a versatile “Star Trek”-like super computer that accomplishes virtually anything you throw at it with a simple voice command. (It should be noted that one of the “Star Trek” super computer’s most compelling features across the numerous TV series included the ability to translate virtually any language in real-time.)

“To truly realize that vision, you’ll want a number of things: you’ll want to have it everywhere, be able to talk to it from anywhere, be able for it to do all of the things you would want an intelligent assistant do for you, and ultimately do it in a very conversational way,” Amazon Vice President of Alexa Al Lindsay told Yahoo Finance during an onstage interview last November.

Amazon is already well on its way to making that vision a reality. Tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices have been sold since the first Echo speaker went on sale in 2014, and according to eMarketer, Amazon Echo will account for 67.9% of the voice-enabled speaker market in 2018.

Race to translate languages

If and when Amazon eventually rolls out such language-translation features, Alexa will enter an area that companies like Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Samsung have tackled with mixed results. In October, Google initially made waves when it claimed its Google Pixel Buds, with the help of Google Assistant, could translate up to 40 languages spoken in real-time, but the actual execution proved lacking. Samsung’s Bixby assistant, fares somewhat better: it uses augmented reality to translate text from more than 100 languages in real-time, but it doesn’t translate actual conversations yet. Meanwhile, other digital assistants like Apple’s (AAPL) Siri and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Cortana can currently translate words and phrases from English into less than a dozen other languages, but the extent and success to which they do so remains limited.

The Alexa team is well aware of the stiff, technical challenges in developing and releasing effective language translation features of its own, based in part on the shortcomings of its direct competitors. As such, sources told Yahoo Finance Amazon won’t roll them out unless (and until) they’re up to snuff.

When they likely do, however, Alexa will take its most impressive step yet towards realizing Amazon’s vision of creating a Star Trek-like computer that does, well, just about everything.  

JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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