Now We Know Why Apple Stepped Up Machine Translation Research

Apple Translate App Launch in June 2020 at WWDC

The new Apple iPhone operating system, iOS 14, will come with a Translate app; so revealed the tech giant on June 22, 2020 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2020). iOS 14 will feature several updates to Siri, such as enabling it to send audio messages, help with offline translations, and support for new language pairs. Basically, Siri will enable iPhone users to have “entire conversations [that are] natural and easy, and have the ability to stay private” via offline mode.

Slator has been covering developments in machine translation for quite some time and reports on MT out of Cupertino have increased in recent years, adding to the scads of research undertaken by behemoths Google and Amazon.

It was last fall when leaked documents suggested that Apple had stepped up research into MT. More recently, two Apple researchers — one of them a Siri Machine Translation R&D Scientist — went on a quest toward overcoming speech translation, which builds on previous work in MT and automatic speech recognition (ASR).

The iPhone Translate app is a natural competitor to Google’s and the host of standalone translation gadgets out in the market today, especially since Apple’s Translate app has the ability to work completely offline. This could potentially address latency issues, the one perennial complaint surrounding standalone translation devices (i.e., the lag between voice input and audio output, especially when online).

As shown in the Apple demo, turning the iPhone to landscape mode opens up a side-by-side view of the conversation, making it easier to follow. Using a single microphone, the Translate app detects the spoken language and shows the translation on the “correct side of the screen using advanced on-device machine learning and the powerful neural engine.”

iPhone users will be able to translate text and voice between any combination of 11 languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian); which will likely grow with future releases of the app.

With this latest announcement, one of the last big tech players has now joined the long list of deep-pocketed companies putting resources into developing proprietary machine translation technology. It remains to be seen whether the Translate app will remain a priority, or become just another one of those undeletable iPhone apps languishing somewhere in an Apple folder.