Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Lost in Translation

I have a meeting coming up later this week with a gentleman of Chinese extraction to discuss a technical subject.  Unfortunately, the gentleman in question doesn't speak much English and although he has family who do, they won't be available during the visit.  However I do have some knowledge of Mandarin, but it's unlikely I'll be spending much time in the meeting discussing Cantonese menus or Mah Jong tilesets.

When I agreed to the meeting a month ago I was quite relaxed about the challenge - I have access to a translation service via my mobile phone so I can ask a question that will be relayed to the gentleman, who will reply to the person on the other end who will pass the answer to me.  It sounds long winded and it hardly lends itself to a smooth transfer to information.

Consequently, at somewhere near the eleventh hour, I started to wonder if there were other technological ways to assist.

I started with Babelfish, however simple exploratory questions returned a null answer - Babelfish returned the sentence (in English) 'Sorry we are unable to translate your request'.  I even tried 'Hello' and got the same response, so I guess Babelfish is out.  I've used it to translate documents into European languages before now and been greeted with howls of laughter, so perhaps it's as well that it just gave up.

So I dug a little deeper and discovered that Google have been investing in online translation for years, buying up the best language scientists from around the world and putting them into laboratories to develop language solutions.  In fact, they are aiming much higher that that, they are funding research into the whole Artificial Intelligence field and apparently are leading the world at it.

Most attempts at automating language translation examines sets of documents that have been professionally translated and looks for clues to the nuances involved in the process.  Let's face it, just getting one language right is difficult enough for most of us, so then translating it into another and conveying the same feeling as the original message is a tall order.  Historically researchers have had access to a limited number of documents such as those translated by the United Nations and have built their models on them.  Google, however, have access to billions of other documents, many not too high brow or technical, but with many of them translated by real people in the real world to assist their own country folk.  This access to original translated pairs is providing fantastic insight to the researchers and scientists employed by Google for this project.

It turns out that freeing up all of the information on the web independent of language has been a long term Google aim, determined before the aim to make them the richest and most powerful organisation of the planet, but only by a few weeks.  And now they are thinking right out of the box and beyond the Google Glass project as they firmly believe that in the future we will have a Google chip implanted that can access Google as soon as the fleeting thought passes by it that indicates you don't know something.  I hope they're ready for a busy chip if it gets in my head.

Of course it may not be in my lifetime, but I'm guessing that if Google are talking about it now, they're well on the way to developing it as well.  Good luck with the FDA approval, mind, those guys can be a bit sticky.  Also I suspect there might be an Anti-Trust aspect to be thought through, perhaps literally.  Will Google have to provide an opportunity for the chip host to reconfigure it to use Bing instead?  Judging by my failed attempts to make Bing the default search engine on my Nexus 7, I don't think so.

The research Google is funding is ground-breaking and truly has the potential to liberate the human species in a way that Gutenberg did.  However I did find what I think is a flaw in their approach.  You see, the Google vision is that the chip in your head recognises the thought that indicates you don't know something - perhaps you spot a new food and wonder what it is - Google chip slips off and finds out it is a delicacy known alternatively as 'Kung P'o or 'number 39', finds a list of the common ingredients, identifies some of its history and, finally, tells you where you might buy some nearby.

In fact, it seems that Google is convinced that what we ultimately want is to know where we can buy items we search for. I accept they are ultimately a business and this Artificial Intelligence thing is mind-numbingly expensive, but many of my searches, on Google and Bing or Yahoo (or Yandex if I'm searching for Malware) are not to find things to buy, but just to find out information, pure knowledge.

So the Google chip probably wouldn't help me later this week, given Google's vision.  In essence the ability to say something in my native language to the proverbial Chinaman, have it translated into something meaningful and accurate in his head so that he can reply to me his language ready for my chip to do some work is an exciting concept, but if it results in an endless list of shopping suggestions, sponsored ads popping into our heads and SEO skewed results deviating away from the topic on hand then I guess I'll have to stick with the mobile phone and the faceless translator for now.

Or discuss Cantonese food and Mah Jong tilesets instead.


                                                          Visit my Book Website here

        Visit Project: Evil Website here                                        Visit DLF Website here

        Follow me on Twitter  - @RayASullivan

        Join me on Facebook -  use to find me

No comments:

Post a Comment