Machine Translation: The Robotic Language Apocalypse

There’s a lot of talk going around about Machine Translation: how good is it? Is it really worth it? Will it surpass humankind in the linguistic arts, eventually causing some kind of robotic, language-apocalypse?

Probably not. At least not any time soon.

But, while we may still have some time left in this world before machine translators rule the day, it might be worth contemplating another possibility: will machines gain the intelligence required to manipulate language in the same way that we do? If they do, what then?


Language and AI (artificial intelligence)

AI is a hot-debated topic. Some say it will drastically improve our day-to-day lives – that it would be the pinnacle of human achievement. Others say the opposite; that self-aware machines might only be our undoing.

World-changing pros and cons aside, there is another consequence of man-made life that we have yet to reflect on in great depth, and it is one that we at BLS are certainly interested in: how will AI change the way we speak? And how, in turn, will it have an impact on the translation industry?

As with the development of any new technology, it is to be expected that the arrival of super-smart, walking, talking machines would inevitably spur on the creation of new words (called neologisms). New discoveries and inventions require additions to language to help communicate novel concepts. Perhaps, by the end of this decade, we’ll all be working with our own personal mechmates. Or perhaps not!

On the other hand, as society rushes forward, some fields of work and knowledge will be left behind, meaning that certain words might become obsolete and fall out of common usage. (A computer? What’s that?!)

This is only the surface of what could happen to our way of communicating in the event of genuine artificial intelligence coming into play. In reality, we might see a much more radical and fundamental change to our community of languages. Would machines even bother with something that, to them, could seem so primitive? This could stir on a competitive spirit between our two kinds, possibly leading to the evolution of a whole new way of conveying ideas between people and cultures.


What does all this all mean for human translation and our industry?

As far as we are concerned, though, the bottom line is this: are our days as translators numbered?

This all depends on how good AI has the potential to become. Translation is no simple matter; we are tasked with understanding more than meaning – we must take into account context, associations, intent and a myriad of other factors. This requires a kind of emotional awareness and intelligence that, so far, only humans have been capable of. And what about trust and confidentiality?

If we were to create machines that experienced life in the same way that we do, then perhaps a never-tiring, omniscient race of androids may one day see the end of human translators. However, would they ever really be able to understand the world from our perspective, and make that perspective known to others of our own kind?


What do you think?

Josh Emanuel
Business Language Services Ltd.


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