‘Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel’

Machines, Lost In Translation: The Dream Of Universal Understanding by Anne Li.

From the post:

It was early 1954 when computer scientists, for the first time, publicly revealed a machine that could translate between human languages. It became known as the Georgetown-IBM experiment: an “electronic brain” that translated sentences from Russian into English.

The scientists believed a universal translator, once developed, would not only give Americans a security edge over the Soviets but also promote world peace by eliminating language barriers.

They also believed this kind of progress was just around the corner: Leon Dostert, the Georgetown language scholar who initiated the collaboration with IBM founder Thomas Watson, suggested that people might be able to use electronic translators to bridge several languages within five years, or even less.

The process proved far slower. (So slow, in fact, that about a decade later, funders of the research launched an investigation into its lack of progress.) And more than 60 years later, a true real-time universal translator — a la C-3PO from Star Wars or the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — is still the stuff of science fiction.

How far are we from one, really? Expert opinions vary. As with so many other areas of machine learning, it depends on how quickly computers can be trained to emulate human thinking.

The Star Trek Next Generation episode Darmok was set during a five-year mission that began in 2364, some 349 years in our future. Faster than light travel, teleportation, etc. are day to day realities. One expects machine translation to have improved at least as much.

As Li reports exciting progress is being made with neural networks for translation but transposing words from one language to another, as illustrated in Darmok, isn’t a guarantee of “universal understanding.”

In fact, the transposition may be as opaque as the statement in its original language, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” leaves the hearer to wonder what happened at Tanagra, what was the relationship between Darmok and Jalad, etc.

In the early lines of The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a Middle Kingdom (Egypt, 2000 BCE – 1700 BCE) story, there is a line that describes the sailor returning home and words to the effect “…we struck….” Then the next sentence picks up.

The words necessary to complete that statement don’t occur in the text. You have to know that mooring boats on the Nile did not involve piers, etc. but simply banking your boat and then driving a post (the unstated subject of “we struck”) to secure the vessel.

Transposition from Middle Egyptian to English leaves you without a clue as to the meaning of that passage.

To be sure, neural networks may clear away some of the rote work of transposition between languages but that is a far cry from “universal understanding.”

Both now and likely to continue into the 24th century.

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