Technology mimics magic

In his “three ‘laws’ of prediction,” Arthur C. Clarke once postulated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

That quote was one of the first things that came to mind today as my colleagues demonstrated Word Lens. (In a nutshell, it’s an iPhone application that instantly translates any text from Spanish to English—or vice-versa—within the confines of the original document.) I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the demo online. It really did seem like magic.

Upon closer examination, I figured out how it works: The app uses a very sophisticated character-recognition algorithm to read each letter individually. Then it combines the letters into words, finds the words in its internal dictionary, and finally it “translates” the text by displaying the corresponding words in the alternate language.

As the daughter of a professional translator, I know that this method will be far from perfect. (I can hardly wait for an site to pop up with humorously botched translations.) But that doesn’t make it any less cool.

I hope they come out with other languages. I’d love to finally be able to visit Croatia with confidence.

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