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In the myth about the Tower of Babel, people conspired to build a city and tower that would reach heaven. Their creator observed, “And now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” According to the myth, God thwarted this effort by creating diverse languages so that they could no longer collaborate.
In our modern times, we’re experiencing a state of unprecedented connectivity thanks to technology. However, we’re still living under the shadow of the Tower of Babel. Language remains a barrier in business and marketing. Even though technological devices can quickly and easily connect, humans from different parts of the world often can’t.
Translation agencies step in, making presentations, contracts, outsourcing instructions, and advertisements comprehensible to all intended recipients. Some agencies also offer “localization” expertise. For instance, if a company is marketing in Quebec, the advertisements need to be in Québécois French, not European French. Risk-averse companies may be reluctant to invest in these translations. Consequently, these ventures haven’t achieved full market penetration.
Global markets are waiting, but AI-powered language translation isn’t ready yet, despite recent advancements in natural language processing and sentiment analysis. AI still has difficulties processing requests in one language, without the additional complications of translation. In November 2016, Google added a neural network to its translation tool. However, some of its translations are still socially and grammatically odd. I spoke to technologists and a language professor to find out why.
“To Google’s credit, they made a pretty massive improvement that appeared almost overnight. You know, I don’t use it as much. I will say this. Language is hard,” said Michael Housman, chief data science officer at RapportBoost.AI and faculty member of Singularity University.
He explained that the ideal scenario for machine learning and artificial intelligence is something with fixed rules and a clear-cut measure of success or failure. He named chess as an obvious example, and noted machines were able to beat the best human Go player. This happened faster than anyone anticipated because of the game’s very clear rules and limited set of moves.
Housman elaborated, “Language is almost the opposite of that. There aren’t as clearly-cut and defined rules. The conversation can go in an infinite number of different directions. And then of course, you need labeled data. You need to tell the machine to do it right or wrong.”
Housman noted that it’s inherently difficult to assign these informative labels. “Two translators won’t even agree on whether it was translated properly or not,” he said. “Language is kind of the wild west, in terms of data.”
Google’s technology is now able to consider the entirety of a sentence, as opposed to merely translating individual words. Still, the glitches linger. I asked Dr. Jorge Majfud, Associate Professor of Spanish, Latin American Literature, and International Studies at Jacksonville University, to explain why consistently accurate language translation has thus far eluded AI.
He replied, “The problem is that considering the ‘entire’ sentence is still not enough. The same way the meaning of a word depends on the rest of the sentence (more in English than in Spanish), the meaning of a sentence depends on the rest of the paragraph and the rest of the text, as the meaning of a text depends on a larger context called culture, speaker intentions, etc.”
He noted that sarcasm and irony only make sense within this widened context. Similarly, idioms can be problematic for automated translations.
“Google translation is a good tool if you use it as a tool, that is, not to substitute human learning or understanding,” he said, before offering examples of mistranslations that could occur.
“Months ago, I went to buy a drill at Home Depot and I read a sign under a machine: ‘Saw machine.’ Right below it, the Spanish translation: ‘La máquina vió,’ which means, ‘The machine did see it.’ Saw, not as a noun but as a verb in the preterit form,” he explained.
Dr. Majfud warned, “We should be aware of the fragility of their ‘interpretation.’ Because to translate is basically to interpret, not just an idea but a feeling. Human feelings and ideas that only humans can understand—and sometimes not even we, humans, understand other humans.”
He noted that cultures, gender, and even age can pose barriers to this understanding and also contended that an over-reliance on technology is leading to our cultural and political decline. Dr. Majfud mentioned that Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar used to refer to dictionaries as “cemeteries.” He suggested that automatic translators could be called “zombies.”
Erik Cambria is an academic AI researcher and assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He mostly focuses on natural language processing, which is at the core of AI-powered language translation. Like Dr. Majfud, he sees the complexity and associated risks. “There are so many things that we unconsciously do when we read a piece of text,” he told me. Reading comprehension requires multiple interrelated tasks, which haven’t been accounted for in past attempts to automate translation.
Cambria continued, “The biggest issue with machine translation today is that we tend to go from the syntactic form of a sentence in the input language to the syntactic form of that sentence in the target language. That’s not what we humans do. We first decode the meaning of the sentence in the input language and then we encode that meaning into the target language.”
Additionally, there are cultural risks involved with these translations. Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, Director of UCLA’s Digital Cultures Lab, said that new technological tools sometimes reflect underlying biases.
“There tend to be two parameters that shape how we design ‘intelligent systems.’ One is the values and you might say biases of those that create the systems. And the second is the world if you will that they learn from,” he told me. “If you build AI systems that reflect the biases of their creators and of the world more largely, you get some, occasionally, spectacular failures.”
Dr. Srinivasan said translation tools should be transparent about their capabilities and limitations. He said, “You know, the idea that a single system can take languages that I believe are very diverse semantically and syntactically from one another and claim to unite them or universalize them, or essentially make them sort of a singular entity, it’s a misnomer, right?”
Mary Cochran, co-founder of Launching Labs Marketing, sees the commercial upside. She mentioned that listings in online marketplaces such as Amazon could potentially be auto-translated and optimized for buyers in other countries.
She said, “I believe that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, with what AI can do with marketing. And with better translation, and more globalization around the world, AI can’t help but lead to exploding markets.”
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When? This is probably the question that futurists, AI experts, and even people with a keen interest in technology dread the most. It has proved famously difficult to predict when new developments in AI will take place. The scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in 1956 thought that perhaps two months would be enough to make “significant advances” in a whole range of complex problems, including computers that can understand language, improve themselves, and even understand abstract concepts.
Sixty years later, and these problems are not yet solved. The AI Index, from Stanford, is an attempt to measure how much progress has been made in artificial intelligence.
The index adopts a unique approach, and tries to aggregate data across many regimes. It contains Volume of Activity metrics, which measure things like venture capital investment, attendance at academic conferences, published papers, and so on. The results are what you might expect: tenfold increases in academic activity since 1996, an explosive growth in startups focused around AI, and corresponding venture capital investment. The issue with this metric is that it measures AI hype as much as AI progress. The two might be correlated, but then again, they may not.
The index also scrapes data from the popular coding website Github, which hosts more source code than anyone in the world. They can track the amount of AI-related software people are creating, as well as the interest levels in popular machine learning packages like Tensorflow and Keras. The index also keeps track of the sentiment of news articles that mention AI: surprisingly, given concerns about the apocalypse and an employment crisis, those considered “positive” outweigh the “negative” by three to one.
But again, this could all just be a measure of AI enthusiasm in general.
No one would dispute the fact that we’re in an age of considerable AI hype, but the progress of AI is littered by booms and busts in hype, growth spurts that alternate with AI winters. So the AI Index attempts to track the progress of algorithms against a series of tasks. How well does computer vision perform at the Large Scale Visual Recognition challenge? (Superhuman at annotating images since 2015, but they still can’t answer questions about images very well, combining natural language processing and image recognition). Speech recognition on phone calls is almost at parity.
In other narrow fields, AIs are still catching up to humans. Translation might be good enough that you can usually get the gist of what’s being said, but still scores poorly on the BLEU metric for translation accuracy. The AI index even keeps track of how well the programs can do on the SAT test, so if you took it, you can compare your score to an AI’s.
Measuring the performance of state-of-the-art AI systems on narrow tasks is useful and fairly easy to do. You can define a metric that’s simple to calculate, or devise a competition with a scoring system, and compare new software with old in a standardized way. Academics can always debate about the best method of assessing translation or natural language understanding. The Loebner prize, a simplified question-and-answer Turing Test, recently adopted Winograd Schema type questions, which rely on contextual understanding. AI has more difficulty with these.
Where the assessment really becomes difficult, though, is in trying to map these narrow-task performances onto general intelligence. This is hard because of a lack of understanding of our own intelligence. Computers are superhuman at chess, and now even a more complex game like Go. The braver predictors who came up with timelines thought AlphaGo’s success was faster than expected, but does this necessarily mean we’re closer to general intelligence than they thought?
Here is where it’s harder to track progress.
We can note the specialized performance of algorithms on tasks previously reserved for humans—for example, the index cites a Nature paper that shows AI can now predict skin cancer with more accuracy than dermatologists. We could even try to track one specific approach to general AI; for example, how many regions of the brain have been successfully simulated by a computer? Alternatively, we could simply keep track of the number of professions and professional tasks that can now be performed to an acceptable standard by AI.
“We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go.”
Progress in AI over the next few years is far more likely to resemble a gradual rising tide—as more and more tasks can be turned into algorithms and accomplished by software—rather than the tsunami of a sudden intelligence explosion or general intelligence breakthrough. Perhaps measuring the ability of an AI system to learn and adapt to the work routines of humans in office-based tasks could be possible.
The AI index doesn’t attempt to offer a timeline for general intelligence, as this is still too nebulous and confused a concept.
Michael Woodridge, head of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, notes, “The main reason general AI is not captured in the report is that neither I nor anyone else would know how to measure progress.” He is concerned about another AI winter, and overhyped “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen” exaggerating the progress that has been made.
A key concern that all the experts bring up is the ethics of artificial intelligence.
Of course, you don’t need general intelligence to have an impact on society; algorithms are already transforming our lives and the world around us. After all, why are Amazon, Google, and Facebook worth any money? The experts agree on the need for an index to measure the benefits of AI, the interactions between humans and AIs, and our ability to program values, ethics, and oversight into these systems.
Barbra Grosz of Harvard champions this view, saying, “It is important to take on the challenge of identifying success measures for AI systems by their impact on people’s lives.”
For those concerned about the AI employment apocalypse, tracking the use of AI in the fields considered most vulnerable (say, self-driving cars replacing taxi drivers) would be a good idea. Society’s flexibility for adapting to AI trends should be measured, too; are we providing people with enough educational opportunities to retrain? How about teaching them to work alongside the algorithms, treating them as tools rather than replacements? The experts also note that the data suffers from being US-centric.
We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go. We are judging by the scenery, and how far we’ve run already. For this reason, measuring progress is a daunting task that starts with defining progress. But the AI index, as an annual collection of relevant information, is a good start.
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