Google's Translatotron can translate speech in the speaker's voice

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Speaking another language may be getting easier. Google is showing off Translatotron, a first-of-its-kind translation model that can directly convert speech from one language into another while maintaining a speaker’s voice and cadence. The tool forgoes the usual step of translating speech to text and back to speech, which can often lead to errors along the way. Instead, the end-to-end technique directly translates a speaker’s voice into another language. The company is hoping the development will open up future developments using the direct translation model.

According to Google, Translatotron uses a sequence-to-sequence network model that takes a voice input, processes it as a spectrogram — a visual representation of frequencies — and generates a new spectrogram in a target language. The result is a much faster translation with less likelihood of something getting lost along the way. The tool also works with an optional speaker encoder component, which works to maintain a speaker’s voice. The translated speech is still synthesized and sounds a bit robotic, but can effectively maintain some elements of a speaker’s voice. You can listen to samples of Translatotron’s attempts to maintain a speaker’s voice as it completes translations on Google Research’s GitHub page. Some are certainly better than others, but it’s a start.

Model architecture of Translatotron

Google has been fine-tuning its translations in recent months. Last year, the company introduced accents in Google Translate that can speak a variety of languages in region-based pronunciations and added more langauges to its real-time translation feature. Earlier this year, Google Assistant got an “interpreter mode” for smart displays and speakers that can between 26 languages.

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Why so many people type 'lol' with a straight face: An investigation

LOL: Laughing Or Lying
LOL: Laughing Or Lying
Image: bob al-greene / mashable

There’s a deceitful act I’ve been engaging in for years—lol—but it wasn’t until recently, while texting a massive rant to a friend, that I became aware of just how bad it is. 

I’d just sent an exhaustive recap of my nightmarish day when a mysteriously placed “lol” caught my eye. Not a single part of me had felt like laughing when I typed the message, yet I’d ended my massive paragraph with the words, “I’m so stressed lol.”

I had zero recollection of typing the three letters, but there they were, just chilling at the end of my thought in place of a punctuation mark. I hadn’t found anything funny, so why were they there? Unclear! I scrolled through my conversations and noticed “lol” at the end of nearly every message I’d sent — funny or not. That’s when I realized how frequently and insincerely I use the initialism in messages. I was on auto-lol.

The next day, I arrived to work with a heightened sense of lol awareness and took note of my colleagues’ behavior on Slack. They too, overused “lol” in conversation. Chrissy Teigen tweeted about the family hamster again? “Lol.” Someone’s selling a jean diaper? “Lol.” Steve Buscemi’s name autocorrected to Steph Buscemi? “Lol.”

It was ubiquitous. And though some made audible chuckles at their desks throughout the day, the newsroom remained relatively silent. People were not laughing out loud whenever they said they were. It was all a sham!

As I’m sure is true with everyone, there are times when I’ll type “lol” and smile, chuckle, or genuinely laugh out loud. But I’m also notoriously capable of assembling the three letters without moving a facial muscle.

Curious to know why so many of us insist on typing “lol” when we aren’t laughing, I turned to some experts.

Why so serious? Lol.

Lisa Davidson, Chair of NYU’s Department of Linguistics, specializes in phonetics, but she’s also a self-proclaimed “prolific user” of “lol” in texts. When I approached Davidson in hopes of uncovering why the acronym comes out of people like laugh vomit, she helpfully offered to analyze her own messaging patterns.

On its surface, Davidson suspects “the written and sound structure” of “lol” is pleasing, and the symmetry of how it’s typed or said likely adds to that appeal. The ‘l’ and ‘o’ are also right next to each other on a keyboard, she notes, which makes for “a very efficient acronym.” In taking a deeper look, however, she recognized several other reasons one might overdo it with the initialism.

Davidson often sees “lol” used in conjunction with self-deprecating humor, or to poke fun at someone in a bad situation, like “if someone says they’re stuck on the subway, and you text back ‘lol, have fun with that.'” And in certain cases, she notes, “lol” can be included “to play down aggressiveness, especially if used in conjunction with something that might come across as critical or demanding.”

“For example, if you’re working on a project with a co-worker, and they save a file to the wrong place in a shared Drive, you [might] say something like, ‘Hey, you put that file in the Presentations folder, lol. Next time can you save it to Drafts?'” 

Extremely relatable.

Admitting we have a problem

After hearing from Davidson, I set out to analyze a few of my own text messages. I found several of her interpretations applicable and even discovered a few specific to my personal texting habits.

When telling my friend about my stressful day, for instance, I realized I’d included the lol that anchored my message for comfort, like a nervous giggle. In my mind, it meant I was keeping things light, which must mean everything’s OK. In many cases, I also add “lol” to a message to make it sound less abrasive. Without it, I fear a message comes across as cold or incomplete.

On occasion, I’ll send single “lol” texts to acknowledge I’ve received a message, but have nothing else to add to the conversation. And as much as it pains me to admit, the lol is sometimes there as a result of laziness. I experience moments of pure emotional exhaustion in which I’d rather opt for a short and sweet response than fully articulate my thoughts. In those cases, “lol” almost always delivers.

A poor soul removing his

A poor soul removing his “lol” mask after a long day of pretending to laugh.

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

The realization that “lol” has become a sort of a conversational crutch for me is somewhat disturbing, but I can take a shred of solace knowing I’m not alone. As previously noted, many of my colleagues are also on auto-lol. (If you need some proof, 3,662 results popped up when I searched the term in Mashable Slack, and those are just the lols visible to me.)

When I brought up the topic of lol addiction in the office, offenders quickly came forward in an attempt to explain their personal behavior. Some said they use it as a buffer word to fill awkward silences, while others revealed they consider it a kinder alternative to the dreaded “k.”

Without lol, I sometimes feel a message comes across as cold or incomplete.

Several people admitted they call upon “lol” in times when they feel like being sarcastic or passive aggressive, whereas others use it to avoid confrontation, claiming it “lessens the blow of what we say.” 

“I’ve also noticed a lot with my friends that if they say something that creates a sense of vulnerability they’ll use ‘lol’ or ‘haha’ to diminish its importance,” another colleague noted.

While there are a slew of deeper meanings behind “lol,” sometimes the lack of audible laughter simply comes down to self-control. You can use the term to communicate you genuinely think something’s funny, but you might not be in a physical position to laugh about it — kind of how people type “I’M SCREAMING” and do not scream.

Understanding the auto-lol epidemic

Nearly everyone I spoke to believed the auto-lol epidemic is real. But how exactly we as a society arrived at this place of subconscious laughter remains a mystery.

Though “lol” reportedly predates the internet, a man named Wayne Pearson claims to have invented the shorthand in the ’80s as a way to express laughter online. As instant messaging and texting became more popular, so did “lol,” and at some point, its purpose pivoted from solely signifying laughter to acting as a universal text response.

Caroline Tagg, a lecturer in Applied Linguistic and English Language at Open University in the UK, favors emoji over “lol,” but as the author of several books about digital communication — including Discourse of Text Messaging: Analysis of SMS Communication — she’s very familiar with the inclusion of laughter in text.

“People who are in regular contact with each other do usually develop shared norms of communication.”

“Over time, its use has shifted, and it has come to take on other meanings — whether that’s to indicate a general mood of lightheartedness or signal irony,” Tagg confirms. “These different meanings emerge over time and through repeated exposure to the acronym.”

In some cases, the decision to include “lol” in a message might be stylistic — “an attempt to come across in a particular way, to perform a particular persona, or to adopt a particular style.” 

Ultimately, Tagg believes everyone perceives “lol” in text differently, and makes the conscious decision to use the initialism for various reasons, which are usually influenced by “conversational demands.”

As for the increase in frequency over time, she noted that if you engage in conversation with someone who’s a fan of saying “lol,” you could wind up using the term more often. “Generally speaking … people who are in regular contact with each other do usually develop shared norms of communication and converge around shared uses,” she said. 

Think of it like a vicious cycle of contagious text laughter.

Embarking on an lol detox

Now that I’m aware of my deep-seated lol dependency, I’m trying my best to change it. I encourage anyone who thinks they might be stuck in an lol rut to do the same.

The way I see it we have two options: Type lol less, or laugh out loud more. The latter sounds pretty good, but if you’re committed to keeping your Resting Text Face, here are some tips.

Try to gradually wean yourself off your reliance on lol by ending messages with punctuation marks instead, using a more specific emoji in place of your laughter, or making an effort to better articulate yourself. Instead “lol,” maybe, “omg that’s hilarious,” for example. 

At the very least, try changing up your default laugh setting once in a while. Different digital laughs carry different connotations. If you’re ever in doubt about which to use, you can reference this helpful guide:

  • LOL/HAHA — I really think this thing is hilarious as shown by my caps!

  • Lol — Bitch, please OR I have nothing to say.

  • lollllllllll — Yo, that’s pretty funny.

  • el oh el — So unfunny I feel the need to type like this.

  • haha — Funny but not worth much of my time.

  • hahahaha — Funny and worth my time!

  • hah/ha — This is not amusing at all and I want to make that known.

  • HA — Yes! Finally!

  • Lmao/Lmfao — When something evokes more comedic joy than “lol” does.

  • LMAO/LMFAO Genuine, impassioned laughter, so strong you feel as though your rear end could detach from your body.

  • Hehehe — You are softly giggling, were just caught doing something semi-suspicious or sexting, or are a small child or a serial killer. This one really varies.

  • heh — Sure! Bare minimum funny, I guess! Whatever!

In very special cases, consider clarifying that you are literally laughing out loud. As someone who’s received a few “Actually just laughed out loud” messages in my lifetime, I can confirm that they make me feel much better than regular lol messages.

One of the major reasons we rely so heavily on representations like “lol” in digital interactions is because we’re desperately searching for ways to convey emotions and expressions that can easily be picked up on in face-to-face conversations. It works well when done properly, but we’ve abused lol’s polysemy over the years. After all the term has done for us, it deserves a break.

If we make the conscious effort to scale back, we might be able to prevent “lol” from losing its intended meaning entirely.

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We really need a new word for binge-watching

Treat yourself. Don't binge.
Treat yourself. Don’t binge.
Image: vicky leta, mashable

In Binged, Mashable breaks down why we binge-watch, how we binge-watch, and what it does to us. Because binge-watching is the new normal.

If you were born a working-class kid near the English city of Leicester before Queen Victoria’s reign, then you may have been one of the first people in the world to use the word “binge.” Which, back then, meant “soaking wood so it swells and won’t leak in the rain.”

The first writer to record the word, in 1848, also mentioned Leicestershire locals had started to use “binge” for another kind of soaking: getting wasted. And that’s how it spread around the world — from alcoholism (binge-drinking) to excessive food consumption (binge-eating, introduced around a century ago), until finally, around 2014, largely thanks to Netflix, we began to talk of binge-watching.  

But now, five years later, it’s time we reconsidered this nasty linguistic turn. 

Yes, I know, this is a strange thing to say in an article that’s part of a series called “Binged.” English is democratic that way; enough people use a word and we all have to adopt it to be understood. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also fight back against a word that starts to sound a little queasy when you, er, binge-use it. (Trust us.) 

The thing about the phrase binge-watching is it’s the only one of those three kinds of consumption where the meaning has flipped. Try telling everyone in the office you binged on vodka every night this week; you’d get fearful looks and a meeting with your manager. Boasting about binges that involve family-sized bags of chips and whole cakes? Your doctor may want a word about life-threatening eating disorders

So why is it socially acceptable to talk about binge-watching the latest hot Netflix series? Unlike those other contexts, it isn’t really an addiction — not unless you find yourself on an uncontrollable, self-hating downward spiral where you have to go back to Season 1, Episode 1 over and over again, forgoing your sleep, your health, your job. 

Spoiler alert: Even the Battlestar Galactica-obsessed characters in this famous 2012 Portlandia sketch did not go that far.  

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Alternatives to binging

Synonyms for binge include spree and jamboree. Both of which would be more fun, if a little twee — later, guys, I’m going on a TV spree! If you want to get a little more medieval about it, you could talk about a televisual feast.  

At the same time, modern English already has a perfectly good, positive, aspirational word used to describe consuming many pieces of entertainment in a row — it’s a marathon. These days, it seems, the word is most commonly connected to movies — but starting with Nick at Nite in 1985, TV channels used to call multi-episode blocks of the same show a marathon.

Why marathon hasn’t been applied to the streaming realm isn’t clear. Maybe comparing non-stop streaming to running 26.2 miles at a time when more of us than ever have actually done the latter, just sounds too much like a humblebrag. Binge-watching may have become popular because it is self-deprecating: Hey, I was just stuffing tons of crud into my eyeballs!

Yet we actually have more reason to use marathon in the Golden Age of TV, where plenty of shows that have better plots and production values than Oscar-winning movies. (Game of Thrones vs. Argo? No contest. Sorry, Ben Affleck). 

Even if what you’re marathoning is Gossip Girl rather than The Wire, there’s no need to think of it as a low-nutrition, low-culture guilty pleasure that you’re “binging.” This scene from the 2000 movie Finding Forrester, in which famous reclusive writer Sean Connery boasts of having the New York Times for his main course of reading and the trashy National Enquirer for dessert, has the unapologetic truth of it.   

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The problem is that our language isn’t precise enough yet. There are at least two kinds of behavior that we mean when we talk about binge-watching. There’s the kind where you watch an episode, get sucked in by the cliff-hanger, and fire up the next episode even though you had other things you wanted to do instead: wash, rinse, repeat. 

Sure, let’s call that version binging; there is at least a small element of out-of-control behavior involved. Stomach-churning, guilt-inducing procrastination is somewhat binge-worthy.

But then there are the times when your whole goal is to watch a lot of TV. You’ve had a long hard day, or it’s a rainy weekend, or you’re fighting off the flu. You just want to crash on the couch, snuggle up with blankets and a pet and maybe (just maybe) a significant other, and watch a show that isn’t hard to follow and makes you feel good: Parks and Rec, say. 

Good for you! Own it! Treat yourself!

What alternative name could we could call this type of positive viewing: Treat TV, perhaps? My classy colleague Alexis Nedd proposed an even classier name: a TV retreat. Yes, we’re retreating from reality for a while, just as we do when we take a spa day or a hot springs weekend. 

In both cases when we return, we feel relaxed, with an inscrutable grin on our faces from all the fun we’ve been through. 

After all, given the word’s origin as a synonym for soaking, we could accurately describe a nice bath as taking a binge. There’s a reason why we don’t: It sounds way too negative for what it is. The same rationale should apply to the gentle, uplifting soaking of our poor overworked brains in the light of the big screen. 

Float on and enjoy your TV retreat, everyone. 

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This wearable AI translator lets you talk freely and naturally in different languages

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Timekettle Technologies’ WT2 Plus Wearable Translator can translate speech into more than 20 languages. Read more…

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If Amazon wants Alexa everywhere, it needs better language support

I can’t profess to fully understand all of the complexities of localizing services for various languages, nuances, accents and dialects where voice recognition is concerned. However, with Amazon’s Alexa ambitions ramping up after its hardware event Thursday, it’s worth questioning why the voice assistant’s language support is so abysmal.

Almost four years after launching, Alexa supports English, French, German and Japanese, with Italian and Spanish on the way. Compare that with Siri, which within a year of launch, supported all of the above languages, along with Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese — some languages were tuned for local differences by that point, too. Apple’s voice assistant is now available in 21 languages.

Meanwhile, you can use Google Assistant, which arrived 18 months after Alexa, in 15 languages. Google plans to double that number by the end of the year, and Assistant even understands when you speak two supported languages interchangeably.

It’s not as if Amazon, in its position as one of the world’s most valuable companies, can’t afford to invest the necessary resources to build out language support faster. As of last September, 5,000 employees were working on Alexa alone, and as impressive as the voice assistant generally is, that headcount still doesn’t seem to be high enough.

There’s a disconnect between Amazon’s desire to inject Alexa into pretty much every device imaginable (including wall plugs and microwaves), and it crawling to offer the voice assistant in more languages and dialects. Localizing a service to a high standard takes time, sure, but four languages in four years is woeful.

Amazon brought Alexa to Canada in English last year, but, curiously, not at all on its Fire tablets. (Full disclosure: this Canadian resident picked up a Fire HD 8 in this year’s Prime Day sale and soon found the complete lack of Alexa irritating.)

Quebec’s labyrinthine language laws often preclude companies from offering their products and services in the province unless they’re available in French — Quebecers almost missed out on the SNES Classic, for instance. Amazon made Alexa available in France over the summer, though some fine tuning for Canadian French nuances may be required before Amazon flips the switch for full voice support up here. (Support for the language will reportedly arrive soon.)

Canada’s far from the only market where Alexa has faced difficulties or is non-existent. Whatever ambitions Amazon may hold for Alexa in China may or may not be hampered by regulations there. Still, the nation is by some accounts the world’s fastest-growing smart speaker market, with Alibaba and Xiaomi leading the charge. Alexa can speak English with an Indian accent, though can’t understand Hindi or Bengali.

When an unnecessary Alexa-enabled microwave arrives at your door, just remember that Amazon decided being able to use your voice to cook food instead of hitting a couple of buttons was more pressing than making Alexa more easily available throughout Asia, South America, Africa, the Middle East and most of Europe. Oh, and Canada. Yes, I’m still salty.

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