Microsoft computer speaks Chinese for you — in your own voice

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) --- By now, everyone knows computers can talk.

There's Hal. There's Watson. And, of course, there's Siri.

But never before have computers been able to talk for you, in your voice, and in a foreign language.

That's the technology -- or a precursor to it -- that Microsoft Research recently demonstrated at an event in China. The company's research arm on Thursday posted a video of the talk and a blog post about the technology behind it.

    Watch for yourself here:

    Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s Chief Research Officer, writes that he had to train the system to recognize his voice, and to speak with his intonations. The computer listened to an hour of his speeches (in English) in order to get it right. It also had several hours of training from a Chinese speaker.

    The demo also relies on a new method for processing speech patters, using a system called Deep Neural Networks. The company says this type of machine learning is "patterned after human brain behavior," and means that the researchers are able to reduce error rates by nearly a third.

    Here's more on that concept from a June Microsoft Research post:

    Artificial neural networks are mathematical models of low-level circuits in the human brain. They have been in use for speech recognition for more than 20 years, but only a few years ago did computer scientists gain access to enough computing power to make it possible to build models that are fine-grained and complex enough to show promise in automatic speech recognition.

    Don't get too excited about the results just yet. This kind of speech-to-speech translation technology likely won't be consumer-ready anytime soon. But, as Rashid writes, it could be the start of something:

    The results are still not perfect, and there is still much work to be done, but the technology is very promising, and we hope that in a few years we will have systems that can completely break down language barriers ... We may not have to wait until the 22nd century for a usable equivalent of Star Trek’s universal translator, and we can also hope that as barriers to understanding language are removed, barriers to understanding each other might also be removed. The cheers from the crowd of 2,000 mostly Chinese students, and the commentary that’s grown on China’s social media forums ever since, suggests a growing community of budding computer scientists who feel the same way.

    For what it's worth, the Internet seems impressed.

    Writing for TheNextWeb, Alex Wilhelm called the demo "mindbending."

    "The video is oh so very worth 10 minutes of your time," he writes. "The future, it’s coming."

    And GeekWire lists some practical uses for this type of tech:

    The applications for this type of technology are endless. Say Japanese executives with Nintendo are meeting at the Redmond headquarters and need to say something during a meeting. Use the translator. Or what if you’re ordering food in France but the waiter doesn’t understand English. Use the translator.

    I'm sure you can think of plenty of others. If so, let us know in the comments section.