Microsoft Translator gets offline AI translations

Chances are you mostly need a translator app on your phone while you are traveling. But that’s also when you are most likely to not have any connectivity. While most translation apps still work when they are offline, they can’t use the sophisticated — and computationally intense — machine learning algorithms in the cloud that typically power them. Until now, that was also the case for the Microsoft Translator app on Amazon Fire, Android and iOS, but starting today, the app will actually run a slightly modified neural translation when offline (though iOS users may still have to wait a few days, as the update still has to be approved by Apple).

What’s interesting about this is that Microsoft is able to do this on virtually any modern phone and that there is no need for a custom AI chip in them.

Microsoft’s Arul Menezes tells me that these new translation packs are “dramatically better” and provide far more human-like translation than the old ones, which relied on an older approach to machine translations that has now been far surpassed by machine learning-based systems. The updated language packs (which only take up about half the space of the old ones) are now available for Arabic, Chinese-Simplified, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Thai, with others to follow.

Menezes tells me that Microsoft first trialed these on-device neural translation with Huawei, which started including its homegrown AI co-processor in its Mate 10 and Honor 10 phones last year. Now, however, thanks to what Menezes called “a lot of careful engineering,” the team is able to run these models on phones without dedicated AI hardware, too.

A mobile platform is still somewhat limited compared to a data center, though, so the team also shrunk the models a bit, so if you’re offline, chances are you’ll still see a few more translations that aren’t quite right compared to when you’re online. Microsoft promises that the difference in quality between online and offline translation is barely noticeable, though. “The gap between the neural offline translation and the previous translation quality with our older models is huge,” said Menezes — and he wasn’t shy to compare the quality of Microsoft’s translation services to Google’s.

With this update, Microsoft is also making these offline capabilities available to other app developers on Android who want to use them in their apps (for a price, of course). These apps can now call the Microsoft Translator app in the background, get the translation and then display it to their users. If you’re offline, it’ll use the offline translations and if you are online, it’ll send the queries to the Microsoft cloud.