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Why Social Science and Not Technology will Determine Your Company’s Future

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 18, 2017

Another day, another new technology grabbing the limelight. This year alone, we have seen Machine Learning, Neural Networks, Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies each vie for centre stage. And now, with the new fashion for AI specialists predicting when certain jobs will be replaced by robots (and always predicting that they will be last!), it looks as if all we need to do is strap ourselves to technology and let it pull us to a wonderful future. But is tech really all it takes for success?

 

In the face of AI, Machine Learning and the like, it helps to remember the plight of laserdisks, Betamax video recorders, minidiscs and jazz drives. All these represented technological advances. Each represented a step change in thinking and an improvement on the competition. All of them ended up on the junkyard of history, right next to PDAs and the portable CD player.

 

Whatever engineers might say, technology on its own is never enough to bring real change. Pity the poor company with a brand new product, only to see its competitors come out with a cheaper and less reliable version that has the face of a celebrity on the side of it. Few investors will plow cash into a concept that works wonderfully but requires large enterprises to convert wholesale from their existing legacy systems.

 

For technology to make a difference, it must be adopted. For it to be adopted, people must be convinced of its benefits. For people to be convinced, someone in the company selling the product has to have a good grasp of how people think and how they behave in groups.

 

Behold the power of social science. Like fine chocolate, social science comes in many flavours: from the heady delights of statistical demographics to the tempting subtlety of autoethnography. What all of social science shares in common is a commitment to study and understand people.

 

Historically, the biggest war within social science was the split between those who preferred quantitative studies with large data sets and complex statistics and those who preferred qualitative studies, which look more at individual and small group experience. Apart from a few dusty corners, that war is now over and the winner is: both sides. Yes, most social scientists will now tell you that, if you want to understand people you need both the big statistical data and the small group/individual perspective.

 

There is a lesson there for technology geeks, especially those fascinated by the power of Big Data. Statistics and data are powerful but personal experience and subjective ideas matter too. If your business is going to thrive, you will have to do more than harness big data; you will need to know how to persuade, encourage, serve and delight people.

 

It’s no wonder then that the highest converting marketing media are still face-to-face contact and word-of-mouth recommendations. Even with the rise of social media, we humans still love to look people in the eyes and spend time with them before we hand over our hard-earned cash. An in-person recommendation from a trusted friend will always carry more weight than a targeted Facebook advert.

 

The reality is that few new technological products live up to the utopian marketing created by their inventors. Those translation earbuds that function perfectly on that YouTube video will struggle in a crowded bar or when you can no longer be bothered to speak in a mechanical monotone and there are no producers around to ensure everyone behaves predictably. That shiny new tablet will run at breakneck speed … until you actually load your favourite apps onto it.

 

Technology is wonderful and, if used well, it can make real contributions to productivity and profit margins. But for those gains to be realised, you need social skills like leadership, trustworthiness and persuasion. For your business to succeed, you will need a social scientist’s head for understanding people and their predilections much more than you will need an engineer’s eye for a new piece of kit that could possibly be created.

 

By all means enjoy technology but put knowing and serving people first and you won’t go far wrong.

 

 

 

Over-hyped, Under-thought and nowhere near ready: Machine Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 12, 2017

A few months ago, I was flying to an important meeting and I was flicking through the in-flight magazine (for pitching purposes, you see). As I did that I spotted a short paragraph touting the latest technological development: an in-ear device that promised to translate flawlessly from one language to another. It looks like from now own event managers can dispense with us interpreters for good and just load up on a supply of tiny devices to make sure everyone has a great event, no matter which language they speak.

 

Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

 

Despite the wonderful headlines in the press and the incredible claims made by marketing departments, the chances of machine interpreting ear-pieces doing anything more than replacing phrasebooks is miniscule.

 

Why?

 

Firstly, there is nothing fundamentally new in the technology used in such devices. Machine translation of some sort or another has been around since the 1940s and is still producing results that range from the plausible to the ridiculous. Remember when google translate turned Russia into Mordor? Remember all those websites displaying mangled English because of poor use of machine translation?

 

Without going into the fine detail of where machine translation actually stands right now (you can read that in this article), basically, unless you are willing to spend months training it and are okay restricting your language to controlled phrases, the results of machine translation will be a bit dodgy.

 

When it comes to magical translation ear-pieces, machine translation is twinned with voice recognition – the technology that is still giving us frustrating helplines, semi-useful virtual assistants and the fury of everyone who doesn’t have a “standard accent”. Sure, voice recognition technology is advancing all the time but it still works best when you use a noise-cancelling microphone and speak super-clearly – not quite the thing for crowded cafés or busy conferences.

 

The second reason why translation headsets are not a cure-all is that interpreting is about far more than just matching a word or phrase in one language with a word or phrase in another. Language is a strange beast and in all communication, people use idioms, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, irony, understatement, and implications and are tuned to social cues, intentions, body language, atmosphere and intonation. At the moment, and for as much of the future as we can predict, computers will struggle to handle even one of those things.

 

Human interpreters have to be expert people readers as well as having enviable language knowledge. Ask the CEO for whom an interpreter helped sort out a cultural and terminological misunderstanding that threatened to lose the company a deal with several million pounds. Ask the doctor who worked with an interpreter to be culturally-aware enough to give a patient the right treatment. Ask the speaker whose interpreter prevented him from making a big, but accidental cultural mistake.

 

When human interpreters work, they don’t simply function as walking dictionaries. They take what is said in one language, try to understand its meaning, tone, and purpose and then recreate it in another language in a way that will work in that specific context.

 

The only way that machines could ever do that would be if meetings and events were just about stuffing information into people’s heads and human beings always said exactly what they meant in a completely neutral way. With the current emphasis on the importance of delegate experience and our newfound awareness that people are more than just robots, it makes sense that we would realise that their communication deserves to be handled by experts, not machines.

 

So the next time someone tries to persuade you that you should let machines take over the interpreting at your event, just remember: for information processing, use a computer; for experience and expertise, work with humans.