Here’s a fun way to start your weekend: Play with the new Google Translate app on Android or iOS. I mean “fun” in the sense of “How much longer is your white collar career going to last?” You may be wondering about the connection.
If you’re in a traditional blue collar job, like manufacturing, the writing’s been on the wall for a long time. For example, “Industrial robots will replace manufacturing jobs — and that’s a good thing”
There is no denying that the U.S. and Canada have been losing jobs to offshore competition for almost half a century. From 2000 to 2010 alone, 5.6 million jobs disappeared.
Interestingly, though, only 13 percent of those jobs were lost due to international trade. The vast remainder, 85 percent of job losses, stemmed from “productivity growth” — another way of saying machines replacing human workers.
All this suggests that many of those jobs that do come back from overseas will go to robots, and it doesn’t take a lot of searching on the Internet to see that this is the latest big meme.
If you’re reading this, though, you’re probably feeling pretty smug. To give you a slight orientation adjustment, try this fun diversion that I promised in the opening paragraph. Go find a passage in French, paste it into the Google Translate app and stand back. To save you some effort, I’ve done this for you, but you’ll get more orientation adjustment if you also do it yourself.
So here’s the opening few sentences of Candide in French (pdf) just as Voltaire wrote them around 1759:
Il y avait en Vestphalie, dans le château de M. le baron de Thunder-ten-tronckh, un jeune garçon à qui la nature avait donné les mœurs les plus douces. Sa physionomie annonçait son âme. Il avait le jugement assez droit, avec l’esprit le plus simple ; c’est, je crois, pour cette raison qu’on le nommait Candide.
Here’s the results from translate.google.com on my Mac:
There was in Vestphalia, in the castle of M. The baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, a young boy To whom nature had given the most Soft. His physiology betrayed his spirit. he Had the right judgment, with the Simple; It is, I believe, for this reason that the Named Candide.
You sort of get the idea, but I wouldn’t want to read the novel as translated by this system. Not too threatening to us knowledge workers, right?
Now here’s the translation from the Google Translate app on my iPad:
There was in Vestphalia, in the castle of the Baron de Thunder-ten-tronckh, a young lad to whom nature had given the most gentle manners. His physiology betrayed his spirit. He had a fairly straightforward judgment, with the simplest mind; It is, I believe, for this reason that he was called Candide.
Perhaps the only immediate sign that this is a machine translation might be the spelling of “Vestphalia” and the capitalization of “It” after the semicolon. Clearly quite readable. Like a human intelligence had read the passage in French, understood what Voltaire was saying, and then expressed the ideas in reasonably good English.
Think about that for a minute, and then use your imagination, which may be the only uniquely human advantage you have left, to speculate on what this means for social and political stability as more and more of us are ushered back to what Thomas P. M. Barnett calls society’s caboose. If you’re into Boyd stuff, try figuring out what it means for competitive strategy.
The New York Times Magazine had a long article about a month ago on how this was done and some of the implications, “The Great AI Awakening,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. Well worth your time. The article also explains that high-quality translations are available between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish, with new languages being added at the rate of about eight per month.
As for the Andromeda Galaxy, if you could see all of it, including the arms, with your naked eye, it would fill a portion of the sky about three times wider than the moon. What you see with binoculars or good vision is just the ultrabright core. This thing is about twice the size of the Milky Way and it’s rushing towards us at about 250,000 mph. Just another fun fact for your weekend.