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Human history came to a tragic halt in 1997. The event was unheralded but the there was no mistaking it; Garry Kasparov, the world’s best chess player, lost a chess match to IBM’s deep learning super computer Deep Blue.

Proponents of the idea that AI, artificial intelligence, could never duplicate the performance of a mental feat as complex and as “human” as chess were silenced when IBM’s supercomputer, utilizing a series of advanced artificial intelligence learning protocols such as: neural nets, parallel processing, deep learning, and GPU graphic processing units, was able to outfox the chess grandmaster.

Defenders of the uniqueness of humanity and it’s consciousness and uniqueness in intellect were dealt a serious blow, as up till then chess had been considered one of the last domains of a truly human form of intellectual exceptionalism that separated it from the machine intelligence that many futurists had long predicted would render mankind and obsolete and furthermore would prove that human intelligence wasn’t much more than a buzzing, whirring collection of randomly assembled neurons and gray matter that would eventually be rendered a relic by silicone based intelligence.

Nevertheless, 10 years down the road a T-800 didn’t appear in California looking for Sarah Conner. For those of a more theological or spiritual bent, mankind’s uniqueness in the cosmos didn’t disappear in a puff o computer obsolescence.

What did happen, probably unsurprisingly given the intellect of the chess master himself, is that Kasparov reconsidered the events that transpired and came to the conclusion that if he had had the same instant access to a massive database of all the previous chess moves that Deep Blue had had to weigh the outcomes of every maneuver, the outcome might have been different. If the AI had access to the database, how was it fair for a human to not have access to the same tools? After all, if in the land of the blind the man with one eye is king, why was the wetware based human being handicapped?

Kasparov pioneered the idea of man-plus-machine matches in which human players have access to AI databased instead of playing against them. These player combinations are referred to as “centaurs,” the human/machine cyborg player that combines the intuition of human players with the processing power of artificial intelligence.

Contemporary players can play as humans, or as enhanced players in multiple formats. Similar events have taken place in gaming, data-driven police work, and take place every day in AI-driven companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon; companies which learn more about their customers likes and information with every keystroke. Google, despite deriving nearly 80% of it’s revenue from ads, is at heart a giant artificial intelligence that is being programmed by its users. Every time a user types in Labrador Retriever, or anything related to one of dogkind’s best, into its search engine an image appears teaching the data cloud of google what a Labrador is by associating the image with the information found in the data cloud.

If you are a translator and this sounds even vaguely like a glossary, then congratulations for taking the first step towards our collectively greater future as language professionals. I was at the American Translator’s Association Washington conference. A sentiment that kept popping up across a surprising amount of workshops was the possibility of language service providers becoming either obsolete or mere low-level intermediaries.

A few savvy interpreters and translators had begun to embrace what will likely become the future of not just the language industry but every industry: the marriage of artificial intelligence’s vast database and computing speed with the unique ability of human beings to think creatively and independently.

Some AI specialists have called this phenomenon “Cognition” in industry. Most of us have been using cognition without fearing obsolescence for years. If you’ve ever driven anywhere and followed your GPS, then you have taken part in mankind’s great union with the machines.

If you’re like most people, you’re become a better driver by using your GPS or an app like Waze. Like most people, you likely don’t drive off the road and into the Hudson River (New Yorkers will understand this) when your GPS told you to. The relation is symbiotic, both parties need each other.

In the language industry the ability to master machines can often make the difference between making good money versus making great money. Translators who are savvy enough to use tools like Dragon’s speech to text software can boost productivity to heretofore unreachable levels. Can any if us imagine taking on a new client without discussing our CAT tools? Can you imagine marketing your linguistic services without mentioning your ability to work with certain CAT tools?

Even in the less intuitively machine-driven world of conference interpreting machines have made a subtle but powerful impact. Any interpreter with even the slightest bit of experience will tell you that one of an interpreter’s greatest abilities is to be confronted with a speaker that no one expected, discussing a subject no one prepared for, using specialized terms no one ever dreamed would be relevant.

Those very same terms, given a small lead time, can be researched to cobble together a hastily but life-saving glossary to be used either in any mode of interpretation. Experienced interpreters know that interpreting can at times be an elaborate form of disaster management; with unexpected idioms, slang terms, unexpected vocabulary or worse. The ability to rely on machine translation to anticipate these disasters

The question we should be asking ourselves as language service providers at the very beginning of what is clearly a groundbreaking technological revolution that is coming harder, faster and more expansively than anyone can imagine is: how do we fit in and who will be eliminated

While some industries will be transformed as in all technological revolutions, some industries will be eliminated. If you disagree just ask your VHS manufacturer while you listen to a cassette tape on your Walkman on your way to your job at a bustling travel agency.

VHS’s, Walkman’s and cassette players are at eternal rest in the technology graveyard; likely ruminating in the afterlife at how unstoppably fast technology is changing and altering our lives. Faebook is barely older than a decade and it’s difficult to imagine life today without social media. To those born cerca 1999, there has never been a world without extensive social media.

What about travel agencies? Walkman’s have no recourse because physical iphones and other devices can hold infinitely more material than a Walkman ever could. Our need to carry music and other media with us has not changed. Travel agencies of old, where a couple would sit down and inquire about ticket prices, are easily commoditized. Customized travel services that help you find great ticket prices and then organize tours and events within the city or location you want to visit are harder to come by. That insider knowledge of tourism can only come from experience and intuition, things that human beings do better than machines. Later on, we’ll look at the likely patterns of what Artificial Intelligence will look like to unravel this mystery further. My personal belief is that Ai will transform into a seamlessly blended all-pervasive presence as ubiquitous as electricity embedded in all of our technology; from the most complex cars and laptops down to smart tables or refrigerators. The idea that super intelligences will reside in individual robots that walk around as enhanced versions of ourselves strikes me as not only unlikely but impractical. More on that later.

Some industries will clearly take a bigger hit than others. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, truck drivers and chauffeurs will have a rough time of it. Google has already successfully tested self-driving cars. Once the economy scales, that industry will have little recourse.

Language service professionals, for all the fear mongering futurists and technologists have created by citing google translate and other translation services, seem blithely unaware that they are discussing one of the most human abilities on earth: human speech.

Artificial intelligence will likely have a hard time understanding the context of jokes, puns, slang, and even the basics of informal language in any meaningful way. Translation may shift away from highly specialized knowledge of technical terms to more contextually based language experts who can understand the meaning of the spoken or written word in a way that AI likely won’t

The only certainty is that we have seen time and time again that while technology disrupts absolutely, it usually ends up transforming into something else in which users crate industries the evolve instead of disappearing. The art form will be in anticipating how to use machines in interpretation and translation. Early adopters will be rewarded and those who don’t understand the inevitably of the new technical paradigm will be left behind. The enterprising among us in the language industry are likely taking advantage of language dictation software, pdf readers and other productivity tools to make our work more efficient. This trend will only get stronger and for those of us who welcome the rise of the machines as a partnership to be formed as opposed to a threat to be stopped, the possibilities are endless


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