Extract from Man v machine: can computers cook, write and paint better than us?
published in theguardian, 6 June 2016
Google Translate was the first piece of proper science fiction to come true, and it’s already a decade old. In many ways it typifies where AI has got to. Useful, sure; impressive, without question; but still clunky as hell, despite big improvements.
If you haven’t used it, it works like this: enter text or web links in any of 103 supported languages and you get a rough translation seconds later in any of the others. The app on your phone will transcribe what you say and then speak it back, translated (32 languages supported); it can replace the text of a foreign language sign or menu wherever you point the camera. No explanation is needed of how cool that is (and it’s free).
Google Translate is surprisingly popular for dating. Things like ‘I love you’ and ‘You have beautiful eyes’
Globally, half a billion people use Google Translate each month, mostly those who don’t speak English (which is 80% of people) but who want to understand the internet (which is 50% English). “Most of our growth, and actually most of our traffic, comes from developing or emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia, India, Thailand,” says Barak Turovsky, head of product management and user experience at Google Translate. It’s surprisingly popular for dating, too, he adds. “Things like ‘I love you’ and ‘You have beautiful eyes’, that’s very prevalent.”
The software has always used a form of statistical machine learning: scouring the internet for already translated text – UN declarations, EU documents – and mapping the likelihood of certain words and phrases corresponding to one another. The more data it gathers, the better it gets, but the improvement levelled off a couple of years ago. Soon, Turovsky says, they will deploy new deep learning algorithms, which will produce much more fluent translations.
Even so, there are limits, and some seem fundamental when you talk to a human translator and realise how subtle their work is. Ros Schwartz and Anne de Freyman volunteer for this task. Both are professional French/English translators, and I need two because, in order to judge how good the translation is without being fluent in both languages, we need to translate twice – once out of English into French, once back again. Google Translate keeps no memory of the original and can do the same thing.
I choose a short passage of distinctive but not especially wild or ambiguous prose from the beginning of Herzog by Saul Bellow. Translators normally require context, so I tell Schwartz and De Freyman that it comes from a famous mid-century American novel.
Within a few days, Schwartz and De Freyman return a very smooth facsimile of the original text. Here and there some nuances have not survived, but the passage remains a pleasure to read, and the main meanings come across exactly.
Google Translate takes only a few seconds, and the result is both impressive and inadequate, weirdly good in places, in others weirdly bad – turning “he” into “it” and concocting the idea that Herzog is in love. Miraculously, it keeps “cracked” as a description of the hero. French has no word that combines the sense of “broken” and “mad” that cracked coveys in English, so De Freyman makes it “cinglé”, which comes back from Schwartz as “crazy”.
“Google Translate would look at statistical probability and say, what does ‘cracked’ mean?” Turovsky explains. “And statistically, it will try to decide whether it means ‘cracked’ or ‘crazy’ or whatever. That, for a machine, is a non-trivial task.” Nor is it simple for a human, even though we find it easy. You’d have to ask whether Bellow could have meant that Herzog was “cracked” as in physically fractured. Then you’d have to assume not, because human bodies don’t generally do that. So you’d wonder what he did mean and assume instead, if you were not already familiar with the usage, that he must mean “crazy”, because you understand the rest of what you’ve read. But to do all this, wouldn’t Google Translate have to be pretty much conscious, I ask? Turovsky laughs. “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question.”
Verdict Some bullseyes and howlers from Google Translate, while Schwartz and De Freyman are fluent and exact.”