Advances in translation technology AI help Japan’s tourism industry

Translation technology is advancing by leaps and bounds with the power of artificial intelligence. Japan’s tourism sector is one area benefiting from AI.

Seibu Railway has installed the device at one of Tokyo’s busiest stations to help staff support foreign travelers flooding into Japan after the pandemic.

A new machine translator at Seibu-Shinjuku Station can translate 12 spoken words into Japanese on a transparent display between station staff and passengers.

When people speak into a microphone placed next to the display, the system listens to their questions in their language and translates them into Japanese for station staff. Their responses will be sent in the same way.

One staff member said that she likes the fact that she can understand people’s facial expressions, something that smartphone translation apps can’t.

Travelers from China use machine translators to communicate with station staff about purchasing tickets.

behind the scenes

This system was developed at Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT).

Project leader Eiichiro Sumita said advances in artificial intelligence are a major advance in the development of machine translation and machine interpretation.

He said the development of machine translation began after World War II, but it was slow to catch on until recently. But when engineers turned to the same advanced AI technologies that beat champions at Go and Shogi, the power of machine translation skyrocketed.

According to Sumita, machine translation developers used to train machines to learn grammar and enter words from dictionaries in the same way humans learn languages, but that technique didn’t work.

When we switched to inputting large amounts of translated data into the device, the level of the machine skyrocketed.

One step further

Sumita’s team is currently working on developing a simultaneous interpretation system with the aim of starting use at the 2025 Osaka Expo.

The prototype was already able to start interpreting within two seconds of a word being spoken. More than 90% of the translations were correct.

Sumita said the simultaneous interpretation system represents a new level of skill over translation display panels and other current translation gadgets.

He said users of consecutive translators must tell the device when to translate, for example by pressing a button when they have finished writing a sentence.

Simultaneous translators allow people to just keep talking. The machine independently decides where to split the phrase and begins translating.

No more “Lost in Translation”

Mr. Sumita pointed out that many Japanese people do not speak English, so the latest translation machines could help Japan’s tourism industry as the number of foreign tourists increases.

He pointed out that of the 400,000 taxi drivers in Japan, less than 1% of them can speak English fluently.

Sumita said the simultaneous interpretation system will help drivers communicate with tourists from overseas. He said potential tourists who have refrained from visiting Japan due to concerns about the language barrier need not worry too much, and “lost in translation” will be a thing of the past.

Eiichiro Sumita Director, National Institute of Information and Communications Technology

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