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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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For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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