Meta announces plans to build an AI-powered ‘universal speech translator’

Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, has announced an ambitious new AI research project to create translation software that works for “everyone in the world.” The project was announced as part of an event focusing on the broad range of benefits Meta believes AI can offer the company’s metaverse plans.

“The ability to communicate with anyone in any language — that’s a superpower people have dreamed of forever, and AI is going to deliver that within our lifetimes,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an online presentation.

The company says that although commonly spoken languages like English, Mandarin, and Spanish are well catered to by current translation tools, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population do not speak languages covered by these systems. Often, these under-served languages do not have easily accessible corpuses of written text that are needed to train AI systems or sometimes have no standardized writing system at all.

Meta says it wants to overcome these challenges by deploying new machine learning techniques in two specific areas. The first focus, dubbed No Language Left Behind, will concentrate on building AI models that can learn to translate language using fewer training examples. The second, Universal Speech Translator, will aim to build systems that directly translate speech in real-time from one language to another without the need for a written component to serve as an intermediary (a common technique for many translation apps).

In a blog post announcing the news, Meta researchers did not offer a timeframe for completing these projects or even a roadmap for major milestones in reaching their goal. Instead, the company stressed the utopian possibilities of universal language translation.

“Eliminating language barriers would be profound, making it possible for billions of people to access information online in their native or preferred language,” they write. “Advances in [machine translation] won’t just help those people who don’t speak one of the languages that dominates the internet today; they’ll also fundamentally change the way people in the world connect and share ideas.”

Crucially, Meta also envisions that such technology would hugely benefit its globe-spanning products — furthering their reach and turning them into essential communication tools for millions. The blog post notes that universal translation software would be a killer app for future wearable devices like AR glasses (which Meta is building) and would also break down boundaries in “immersive” VR and AR reality spaces (which Meta is also building). In other words, though developing universal translation tools may have humanitarian benefits, it also makes good business sense for a company like Meta.

It’s certainly true that advances in machine learning in recent years have hugely improved the speed and accuracy of machine translation. A number of big tech companies, from Google to Apple, now offer users free AI translation tools, used for work and tourism, and undoubtedly provide incalculable benefits around the world. But the underlying technology has its problems, too, with critics noting that machine translation misses nuances critical for human speakers, injects gendered bias into its outputs, and is capable of throwing up those weird, unexpected errors only a computer can. Some speakers of uncommon languages also say they fear losing hold of their speech and culture if the ability to translate their words is controlled solely by big tech.

Considering such errors is critical when massive platforms like Facebook and Instagram apply such translations automatically. Consider, for example, a case from 2017 when a Palestinian man was arrested by Israeli police after Facebook’s machine translation software mistranslated a post he shared. The man wrote “good morning” in Arabic, but Facebook translated this as “hurt them” in English and “attack them” in Hebrew.

And while Meta has long aspired to global access, the company’s own products remain biased towards countries that provide the bulk of its revenue. Internal documents published as part of the Facebook Papers revealed how the company struggles to moderate hate speech and abuse in languages other than English. These blind spots can have incredibly deadly consequences, as when the company failed to tackle misinformation and hate speech in Myanmar prior to the Rohingya genocide. And similar cases involving questionable translations occupy Facebook’s Oversight Board to this day.

So while a universal translator is an incredible aspiration, Meta will need to prove not only that its technology is equal to the task but that, as a company, it can apply its research fairly.

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Super Nintendo World opens at Universal Studios Hollywood in early 2023

Universal Studios Hollywood is aiming to open Super Nintendo World sometime in early 2023, the theme park today. The Nintendo-themed amusement park is currently being built inside the existing Universal Studios theme park in California, and will feature rides, games and an immersive environment modeled after the Super Mario video game franchise. According to Disney Parks news site , construction is currently underway on Bowser’s Castle and other areas of the park.

The theme park also released a of its signature ride, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, where riders will collect coins and throw shells in order to defeat Team Bowser. Riders will don Mario hats and special AR goggles while aboard a four-seat Mario Kart-style vehicle. The same ride is also a part of , which opened last year.

“Ready to experience Mario Kart like never before? Put on the special goggles and battle Team Bowser on iconic Mario Kart courses alongside Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach,” says a of the ride on the theme park’s website.

It’s unclear whether the US-based Nintendo parks (an is planned for 2024) will be inspired by the Japan park or a carbon copy. If they follow Japan’s lead, US fans of Donkey Kong could be in for a treat in a few years. According to , Super Nintendo World Japan is currently building a Donkey Kong-themed area that will include a roller coaster and branded merchandise and food.

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Pokémon is coming to Universal Studios Japan next year

Universal Studios Japan has teamed up with the Pokémon Company to develop “groundbreaking” entertainment starting in 2022, the companies announced. The theme park is effectively doubling down on its Nintendo-related attractions in the park, following the opening of Super Nintendo World and the announcement of a new Donkey Kong expansion. 

There aren’t a lot of details about the project, but the companies said that they’ve formed a “long-term strategic alliance and that multiple development projects are underway.” Whatever they build, it will involve “outstanding creativity” and “world-class entertainment technology,” according to the enthusiastic press release. 

The Pokémon Company is technically separate from Nintendo, though Nintendo does own a big chunk of it. Judging by the press release and a previous leak, it doesn’t seem that the Pokémon section or attractions will be inside Super Nintendo World, however. 

Super Nintendo World currently only exists in Universal’s Osaka park, but it’s under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Singapore, and the upcoming Universal’s Epic Universe at Universal Orlando Resort. To that end, it’s likely that a Pokémon park would appear in the US, too.

Lest you’ve forgotten, the Universal Pokémon expansion wouldn’t technically be the first Poké-related theme park. Pokémon The Park, aka PokéPark, was a traveling Japanese theme park that ran in 2005 and 2006 in Japan and Taiwan. 

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Tech News

Universal Studios Hollywood reopens and it has a new dinosaur to celebrate

As expected — and after a very long wait — Universal Studios Hollywood has reopened to the public, though it’s not quite the same as it was before it shut down. The theme park opened its doors on Friday in California, giving the public access to its attractions, including a new ride and an updated Jurassic Park attraction with a massive new dinosaur.

As with many theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood was down for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several weeks ago, California made it clear that given its then-current COVID-19 cases and how they were trending (combined with vaccination rates) that it would start reopening things in the near future.

That process is already underway, with Disney having recently announced that it will open its Avengers Campus at Disneyland in California this upcoming June. Joining it is Universal with the announcement that its Universal Studios Hollywood destination is back and it has two new arrivals to show off.

Most notable is the change to ‘Jurassic World – The Ride’ at Universal, which now features a massive Indominus rex measuring about 22ft tall and 55ft long. The dinosaur makes her appearance at the end of the ride where she faces off with the similarly massive T-rex, giving riders something to marvel at just before they drop down the waterfall and again at the end of the ride.

Joining the new dinosaur is ‘The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash!,’ a ride that Universal describes as: “Join Max, Duke, Gidget, Snowball, and all your favorite Pets characters for a thrilling new ride through the streets of New York City.” Note that the park comes with some other distinct changes compared to the last time you were there, including a required temperature check, face mask, social distancing via floor markings, and more.

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HP unveils Chromebooks designed for the new Universal Stylus Initiative

HP said Thursday that the company will begin shipping its first Universal Stylus Initiative-enabled Chromebooks later this month, offering the option of either a Celeron or a quad-core Pentium chip inside.

HP will offer the HP Chromebook x360 12b for $359 and the HP Chromebook x360 14b for $379. As the names suggest, they will be 12-inch and 14-inch Chromebooks, with up to full 1080p displays, with specific consumer bents: B&O-powered audio on the 14b, for example. 

The Universal Stylus Initiative (USI) debuted Thursday as well, offering compatibility between various digital styluses. Essentially, the USI standard—supported by a dozen companies from Google, HP, Intel, and a host of stylus makers—will mean that you’ll be able to take your USI stylus and be assured that it will work on a range of various digital devices. HP will make its own pen, the HP Rechargeable USI Pen, which is expected to be available in November for a starting price of $69.99.

While HP says that both Chromebooks will have Pentium options, the only processor their spec sheets list is a Celeron, however. The spec sheets also list just one display option.

HP Chromebook x360 (12b-ca0010nr) basic specs:

  • Display: 12.0-inch (1,366 x 768) IPS, 220 nits
  • Processor:  1.1GHz N4000 Celeron
  • Memory: 4GB LPDDR4
  • Graphics: UHD620
  • Storage: 32GB eMMC
  • Wireless: 802.11ac/Bluetooth 5
  • Ports: 2 USB-C 3.1 (Power Delivery, DisplayPort), 1 USB-A 3.1 Gen 1, 3.5mm jack
  • Battery: 40.31Wh
  • Dimensions: 10.71 in. x 8.50 in. x 0.68 in.
  • Weight: 2.98 lb 
  • Color: Ceramic white
hp chromebook x360 12b frontleft HP

HP’s Chromebook x360 12b.

HP Chromebook x360 (14b-ca0010nr) basic specs:

  • Display: 12.0-inch (1,366 x 912) IPS, 235 nits
  • Processor:  1.1GHz N4000 Celeron
  • Memory: 4GB LPDDR4
  • Graphics: UHD600
  • Storage: 32GB eMMC
  • Wireless: 802.11ac/Bluetooth 5
  • Ports: 2 USB-C 3.1 (Power Delivery, DisplayPort), 1 USB-A 3.1 Gen 1, 3.5mm jack
  • Battery: 47Wh
  • Dimensions: 12.76 in. x 8.90 in. x 0.74 in.
  • Weight: 3.48 lb 
  • Color: Ceramic white
hp chromebook x360 14b mineralsilver ceramicwhite front HP

HP’s Chromeboo x360 14b.

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