Despite headlines claiming that Google’s new Pixel Buds, which provide almost instantaneous translations of foreign languages, will change the world, the real innovation there has been out for years.

Google Translate is the app that powers Google’s Pixel Bud translation, and it’s available for free to anyone on iOS or Android. With it, you can record one language and trigger an almost instantaneous spoken and written translation into another language. You can also translate almost any text in your camera lens in context — e.g. on the menu — and look up almost any phrase.

“I have [been doing] this [for] the last 3 years without any [P]ixel earbuds,” writes the top commenter on a recent CNET video, marveling over Pixel Bud translation.

“Good demonstration[,] but the earbuds aren’t necessary to use Google Translate … it’s all about the $,” writes another.

Google Translate, we’ll add, truly is incredible, and it’s not hard to imagine that it and similar applications are changing the world.

Google Translate lets you talk with anyone.

What this feature of Google’s Pixel Buds primarily amounts to is a neat integration of Google Translate. You can ask your headphones to translate stuff rather than opening the app, and in some cases that might lead to a smoother conversation.

“If two people both have these on, they should be able to have a seamless conversation in their own, different languages, with no phone out; it’s not a major use case, but it’s pretty cool,” says another commenter on the CNET video.

How can translation technology improve from here? Small changes that streamline translation (like the Pixel Buds) aren’t insignificant, and more nuanced translations are certainly valuable. Progress on those fronts could go a long way to improving global communication, perhaps particularly in the digital realm.

More radical progress, however, still lies in the realm of science fiction. Case in point:

(1) Deciphering brain waves for extremely precise, and perhaps telepathic, translation. This concept is used to explain the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the universal translator in Star Trek. As Noam Chomsky has told Inverse, however, we’re nowhere even close to understanding thoughts well enough to do this.

We're still a long way from Star Trek-level translators.

(2) Hacking the brain to make it sound like someone else is speaking your language, allowing for a truly seamless conversation. This concept is seen in The Guardians of the Galaxy, where, as director James Gunn has confirmed, translator implants make it sound and even look to the diverse alien characters like everyone else is speaking in their native tongue. How this technology might work, however, isn’t explained in the least.

We're even further from *Guardians of the Galaxy*-level translators.

Getting closer to either of those breakthroughs might start with the kind of brain-computer interfaces in extremely early development from Elon Musk and Facebook (and a bunch of other companies).

For now, anyway, if you want to take advantage of amazing translation technology, Google Translate is all you need.


If you liked this article, check out this video of headphones that can monitor your brainwaves to keep you focused.