Google Translate is the bane of every first-year foreign language student’s existence. On the surface, signing up to take Mandarin seemed like a good idea thanks to the handy dandy web tool that would put the answers at their fingertips, but the end result – while far better than lugging around a phrase book for most tourists – is a far cry from academic mastery.
But the clunky (and obvious) tool got a lot more sophisticated this year thanks to deeper AI machine learning, which resulted in a thrilling and horrifying discovery by Google’s team of researchers. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying things while simultaneously ripping off the plots of a number of great sci-fi stories, Google Translate created its own language.
So how did this accident happen, and who’s to blame? Okay, ‘blame’ is a strong word here, especially since this is a fantastic feat for AI. To use an embarrassingly simple explanation, Google Translate relied on English to “connect” languages. That means English to first-year college-level Spanish was okay, but going from French to German actually meant going French to English then English to German. So the researchers decided to try something. Once they taught the more advanced Translate tool what the French to English and the German to English looked like, is it possible to go from French to German and back again if the English is wiped clean from the process?
The machine proved that yes, it is, but it was only later that researchers discovered something about their computer: it’s easier to build a bridge than to swim across a churning river. Google Translate has possibly created its own language of sorts, which allowed it to connect the two languages. This bridge allowed it to go far deeper than just basic word recognition and vocabulary, and into more subtle phrasing.
So what’s next? Will language hobbyists abandon Esperanto and Klingon in favor of Googlese? Probably not, but it’s certainly fun to imagine. It’s even more exciting to see not only what Google’s team will do with this new discovery, but also what other surprises the computer has in store…
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