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If someone asked me to make a list of jobs I thought least at risk of getting replaced by robots, I’d have ranked “simultaneous interpreter” near the top. Until today.
As a long-suffering student of Japanese and Mandarin, I know the fiendish difficulty of trying to find the right words instantly in a foreign language. At Fortune, we often use simultaneous interpreters at our conferences. They don’t come cheap. The task is so taxing that only a few thousand people in the world are qualified to do it professionally, and typically they work in pairs, trading 20 or 30 minute shifts, to stave off fatigue.
Now comes Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with the claim that this superhuman occupation, too, eventually will be surrendered to, well, something superior to humans. In Beijing today, the company unveiled an A.I.-enabled tool it claims can translate English into Chinese and German almost instantly. Baidu calls its interpretation technology STACL, short for “Simultaneous Translation with Anticipation and Controllable Latency.” As the name (sort of) implies, Baidu believes that what distinguishes its system from existing online translation services is a combination of speed and flexibility.
While products like Google Translate allow users to say or write a sentence and receive a translation after a lag, Baidu claims its new translation tool allows for sentences to be deciphered in real time, matching the best human interpreters. Users dealing with closely-related languages, like French and Spanish, can chose to start translation after a single word, while those dealing with unrelated languages, like Chinese and English, can instruct the system to wait longer to improve accuracy.
If it works as advertised, the product is a breakthrough for Baidu which has invested heavily in A.I. CEO Robin Li has staked Baidu’s future on the technology with big bets on Apollo, an open-source platform for autonomous vehicles, and DuerOs, an A.I.-powered digital assistant. Natural language processing—the ability for machines to understand human speech—is an especially high-stakes battleground. Tech giants including Amazon, Apple, and Google see natural language and voice recognition as key technologies that can be used to integrate a wide array of different products.
For now, Baidu says the system still isn’t accurate enough to replace human translators. But the company has enough confidence to use it to translate speeches at its annual Baidu World Conference in Beijing next month.
Speaking of China-based tech conferences, don’t miss the opportunity to learn first-hand about Chinese breakthroughs in all forms of AI at this year’s Fortune Global Tech Forum, which will be held in Guangzhou on November 29-30th. We’ll hear from some of the biggest names in China tech, including Sequoia Capital’s Neil Shen, Hillhouse Capital’s Zhang Lei, former Google China boss Kai-Fu Lee, and Ant Financial’s Alan Qi, as well as global luminaries like Jim Breyer, Gary Rieschel, and Salesforce A.I. guru Richard Socher. Register here!