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The Tencent Interpreting Fiasco: a buyer perspective

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 27, 2018

It was hard to miss. Tencent, one of the biggest technology companies in China, aimed to show off their technological prowess by turning over the interpreting at their major tech showcase to a machine. And the results were … not great. The machine spouted gibberish, journalists were amused and suddenly the job of human interpreters seemed safe.

The problem is that most of the discussions of the whole affair were very short-sighted. For businesses and interpreters alike, such short-term “will humans have a job next year?” thinking is strategically useless. In fact, the whole “humans or AI” debate is misleading.

In this post, I will look at what business leaders, events professionals and other buyers need to learn from the Tencent fiasco. Next week, I will look at the perspective of interpreters.

So what do buyers need to learn from the Tencent machine interpreting fiasco?

Let’s start with the obvious: machine interpreting is not ready to be used at important events.

Despite the claims of companies selling the latest gadget and the claims of machine translation suppliers, the best that current technology can do is help you get directions to the train station or help you order pasta. In fact, the latter is even one of the use cases suggested by Google themselves!

There are many reasons why machine interpreting is not even nearly ready to take over your next event but the most important to remember at the moment is that machine interpreting can only deal with words. While words are important, they will always get their meaning from context, intonation and allusion.

Saying “we have no reservations” takes on entirely different meanings depending on who says it. If a hotel receptionist says it, it probably means that your travel agent has messed up. If a potential client says it five minutes before they are due to sign a large contract, it means something completely different. Currently, machine interpreting has no way of determining the wider context of how language is used, apart from sometimes being able to take into account what was said before.

Human interpreters are trained to understand language in context. This is why they ask for detailed briefs before they accept assignments. This is why sometimes they will refer assignments to their colleagues, who might know a specific context better than they do.

Until machine interpreting can understand the social and cultural context of what is being said, it will be as likely to get you in trouble and help you seal the deal. 

The Tencent fiasco not only shows this principle in action but demonstrates the need to be highly critical of the claims of machine interpreting providers. Tencent’s claim of “97% accuracy” most likely came from laboratory results and limited in-house testing. The only results that matter from machine interpreting providers are the experience of clients using it in similar environments to you. For now, it will pay to ignore any research that comes out of testing laboratories. They simply don’t reflect real-life conditions.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore or ridicule machine interpreting. It will have its uses. It may be worth equipping your sales team with it, to make it easier for them to find their way around foreign cities. One day soon, it may even make human interpreting more effective by helping interpreters to prepare better.

But its uses are still limited and there are still privacy concerns attached. Anything said into a machine interpreting app can and will be used as training data. As soon as you turn on machine interpreting, you basically sign away your rights to keep what you said private.

As much as the Tencent fiasco serves as a warning of the dangers in being overconfident in your newest product, it can and should launch some serious debates about the relevance and usefulness of such technologies for businesses and the extent to which we are happy to sign away privacy in return for technological improvements.

 

Want expertise in setting up interpreting for your business? Drop me a message to set up a free Skype call.

The End of Face-to-Face Events?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 1, 2016

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It’s every tech nerd’s dream and most event managers’ nightmare. With increasing environmental concern and ever-improving technology, might the days of face-to-face events be numbered? Now that internet speeds are (mostly) at the point where we can have video chats without our faces looking like a seven-year-old’s Minecraft creation, is there any sense in hiring expensive rooms, flying halfway across Europe and meeting together for a few days, before jetting off home again?

Ironically, I am writing this as I do the preparatory work for my trip to The Meetings Show in the London Olympia as a visitor. Since I live in Edinburgh, this has meant arranging travel and deciding whether to stay overnight. Yet the very fact I have decided that it is worth the rigmarole of checking-in, going through security, avoiding the ladies in the Duty Free (thanks for so kindly making us walk all the way through that, Edinburgh Airport!) and finding the gate, is part of the answer.

The short answer to the future of face-to-face events was one given by Prof. Barry Olsen during a podcast I recorded with him and Alexander Drechsel on remote interpreting. His take? “Face-to-face events will only end when someone finds a way for people to drink beer virtually.”

And that’s pretty much it. What you get in person is precisely the feeling of being there in person. It’s the ability to have a relaxed chat with potential clients over coffee, the opportunity for a chance encounter with an industry leader, the networking that accidentally happens when you flop onto a seat next to someone charging their phone (true story!)…

We all know that it is important to simply be there. If that is true then why is so much of our tech about automation and reducing the input of people? Geo-beacons send people content based on where they happen to be standing; event registration tools let people sign up and collect their badge without talking to anyone; livestreaming beams the content to people on another continent; remote interpreting further separates the speaker from the people whose voices will captivate a large section of the audience.

For meetings to reach their full potential, they need to be human. For interpreting to give the maximum value, the interpreters need to be drinking the same excitement and atmosphere as everyone else.

Event tech is great and remote interpreting has its uses but, the more we realise the true value of face-to-face events, the more we realise that the experience of being in the same room is at the heart of what we do. Great events put people at their centre and make networking and sharing core to the whole experience. Tech is great but connection is still king.

Will Computers Replace Interpreters?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 20, 2016

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Hardly a month goes by without another tech company promising to provide automated, flawless person-to-person “instant translation”. We have seen Skype Translator, NTT Docomo and a parade of over-hyped headsets – none of which actually did anything that impressive.

The latest in the line is Waverly Labs “Pilot earbuds”, which sounds remarkably like every other attempt to replace interpreters – listen to what is said, run it through an online Machine Translation engine, run the result through a speech synthesiser. Hey presto, you’re done!

In theory, it should work well. In fact, if interpreting was all about transferring words or ideas between languages, there would be no particular reason why computers could not, eventually, take over. Contrary to popular belief, computers are actually making great strides in understanding strips of language and matching them with common ways of expressing the same idea in another language.

But it takes all of ten minutes at a conference or doctor’s appointment or even in a library to see that language transfer is only one part of interpreting. Here are some common examples of what interpreters actually do.

  • In hospital appointments, wherever cultural differences are causing a problem, interpreters spot the issue and communicate what clients are saying in a way that that is relevant and faithful but will keep things moving in the right direction.
  • In mental health settings, interpreters offer professionals the information that they would instantly know if the patient spoke their language but can’t perceive when there is a language difference.
  • In conferences, interpreters notice when speakers are being accidentally offensive, take into account what they were trying to achieve and create a version that does what they want, without the offense.
  • In business negotiations, interpreters take into account that interpreting will lengthen proceedings and make people forget important information so they shape what they say to make the negotiations as effective as possible.

While it might appear that interpreting is a language job, with people attached; just a little experience teaches us that it is actually a people skill with language attached. Interpreters read the intentions of the speaker, manage interaction, take into account audience reaction, build rapport, explain cultural difference and  more.

Yes, interpreters deal with language but they quickly realise that the language is almost always wrapped up in layer upon layer of social, cultural, and political complexity. Those are the layers that only a human can understand and, when it comes to the kinds of meetings where interpreters usually work, finding a route through those layers is the only way the event to work.

In truth, the kinds of work that will be taken over by computers are the kinds of work where we have traditionally relied on phrasebooks, dictionaries and, yes, online machine translation engines like google translate. We should all be glad to have computers and headsets to make it easier for us to ask for a beer, get directions to the nearest hospital and figure out what that tweet from your French-speaking colleague was about.

Frankly, using professional interpreters (or translators) in those situations would be a colossal waste of resources. Far better to use them in situations where getting it right will make the difference between life and death, negotiation and division, profit and loss. Machine translation is great and we are still testing its limits but, when it comes to bringing people together you can’t beat, well, people. And if you want people who know how to cut through the jungle of cultural and social differences, you want interpreters.