RIP Machine Translation

I got an email from a woman in Turkey today. She was asking for a 2005 article on machine translation I co-authored. This brought back a ton of nostalgic memories about that now defunct field.

In the short time that machine translation existed, it was a lot of fun. Google Translate killed the industry for obvious reason but Google Translate is boring. It doesn’t translate. It looks for overlaps among gynormous masses of information. It’s like mass produced clothes as opposed to bespoke.

I did a lot of work in machine translation. Once I had to create an algorithm for the entirety of the French grammar. You have to take a sentence and figure out a way to teach the machine to make sense of it. The first thing to do is to nudge it through a series of “if yes then but if no then” questions towards identifying the subject. Then the verb. Then the objects, and so on.

And hey, that’s just grammar. It gets even harder when you get to vocabulary. There’s the finest of lines between teaching the machine to be too rigid and not rigid enough.

It’s also really fascinating to observe the differences between how the machine learns and how people learn. It gets to a point where you feel like you are talking to a sentient being from another planet that is as frustrated with you as you are with it. And then you get with others in the field, and you swap stories like proud parents do about infants.

We could do some really cool stuff but then Google appeared and created this huge shortcut. And it’s obviously enormously better than anything we could do. It’s like the difference between learning to play a violin and pressing a button to hear a recording. It’s clear what would sound better. But it’s also clear what’s more fun.

There was a time when a very different relationship between humans and computers existed. And that relationship was better for humans than what exists now. Power is leaking away from humans in this relationship. Just look at how the concept of a browser mutated since the year when I published that article. And browsers are out anyway. Now it’s all apps. And apps are all about defanging and neutering people.

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