Tower of Babel

True Machine Translation

Have you ever wondered why the government is spending taxpayers’ money on a superfast broadband network? Well, here are a couple of facts:

Worldwide, internet traffic is expected to quadruple by 2015, creating and sharing nearly 8 zettabytes of data (a zettabyte is one million million terabytes or 1021 bytes, around half the total of current global data); 2. 15 petabytes (1000 terabytes and no, we are not making these names up) of new text information is created every day and the volume of data is expected to increase by a factor of 20 by 2020; and lastly, 90 per cent of all data in the world today has been created in the last two years (and by the way, more than 80 per cent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today).

Now try to visualise all that text and information presented in all the languages needed to communicate across the three billion people who will be online by 2015 (using, incidentally, an estimated 15 billion devices connected to the internet, or five each). “We are way past ‘information overload’ and now we are into ‘information management,’” says Dion Wiggins of Asia Online. “But we are also seeing increasing ‘information poverty.’”

Dion has spent most of the last decade realising his vision of reducing that poverty gap between the haves and the have-nots – those with access to education, training, and English (or Mandarin or what have you) teaching and reading, and those without. “Language should not be a barrier to knowledge,” he says.

The current state of the Asia Online project is a stunningly powerful machine translation service known as Language Studio, which Dion describes as “five years ahead of anything else.” Developments to be launched next month will make it twice as far ahead of the field, he predicts.

We are emphatically NOT talking about Google Translate-style operations here. Actually, to call it ‘machine translation’ is a bit like calling the latest Ferrari a ‘horseless carriage’ because the level of sophistication beggars the imagination. It is more accurate, more consistent and easier to ‘tune’ for individual clients than any human translation. But it is also around ten times faster and three times cheaper (fact: because of their relative rarity and the fact that it’s always governments that want it, conventional translation to or from Maori and Tongan is among the most expensive in the world).

Increasingly, the end users of Asia Online’s output are major corporations, many in the medical and legal spheres (in patent law, for example, where translations into many languages are vital, accuracy is imperative and it would take one skilled human translator 150,000 years to deal with a year’s worth of patents worldwide), while their direct customers are language service providers (LSPs), or what we used to call translation houses.

Machine translation is far from a competitor for LSPs – it makes their lives easier and enables them to handle far more copy. Another fact: the language service industry translates just 0.00000067 per cent of the new text information created every day, so there is a fair bit to go around. Much of the work done by LSPs is slow and difficult, and the repercussions of a mistake could be fatal (think automotive safety information, or medical textbooks, for example). The computer can actually improve the quality of translated output, reducing terminology errors and improving consistency (Dion says grammatical errors, though few, are not quite such a life-and-death matter). Asia Online specialises in devising ways for the computers to ‘learn’ patterns of text in pairs of languages – 530 pairs at present with more being added every week.

Dion was born and brought up in New Zealand’s capital Wellington, where his father had a ski and dive business centred on Auckland and Ohakune (incidentally dubbed the ‘carrot capital’ of NZ). Aged 21, he left “for a change of scene” and headed first to Hong Kong, where he quickly became involved in the rapidly growing world of the internet (as it was just beginning to be known in the early 1990s). He started one of Asia’s very first ISPs and ran the Hong Kong Computer Society bulletin board (“on 2400 baud dial-up modems,” he recalls). Then he wrote systems for major accounting and insurance companies before moving on in 1997 to the Philippines. There he was a founder of The ActiveX Factory and received the Chairman’s Commendation Award presented (in person) by Microsoft’s Bill Gates for the best showcase of software (“it was a business portal, but before the portal concept had been thought of”) developed in the Philippines. Again feeling the need for change, he moved to the US where he spent three years in IT consulting, at one stage as chief technical officer with a staff of nearly 1,000 in India. It was at this point that the US Government recognised Dion as being in the top five per cent in his field worldwide and awarded him a US ‘O1’ (Extraordinary Ability) Visa which is still valid and would enable him to take employment in the US with no further applications.

But he still hankered after the free-and-easy lifestyle of Asia. “Having to get your car out just to go to the corner store was a chore,” he explains. So when the offer came from the world’s largest IT research and advisory group, Gartner, he jumped at the chance, returned to Hong Kong as VP and research director, and spent five years advising multinational clients and governments including Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.

The latter country offered itself as home in 2006 when Dion came to found his translation project which he entered into with partners Bob Hayward and Gregory Binger (a senior officer, board member, senior counsel or adviser to many of the world’s best-known internet brands, technology, communications, media and entertainment companies including Yahoo, Lycos Asia, NineMSN Australia, and CompuServe). Dion says Thailand has one of the best stores of human resources in terms of linguistic competence, not least because of the cultural diasporas, the many languages spoken around the country in addition to the varieties of Thai, and the influences of tourism from all over the world. “Here we can readily find linguistic talent for projects, even if it needs polishing sometimes.”

Forty years ago, experts such as Noam Chomsky were still claiming that true machine translation was not possible because of the complexity of language and the way it is so context-driven. Example: “I went to the bank.” Why do you understand this as ‘I walked into a financial institution,’ rather than ‘I swam to the side of the river?’ Answer: because of the context and the probability that this is what is meant. And here is the core of the Asia Online strength: ‘learning.’ Chomsky and co correctly assumed computers cannot assimilate, but they can work on the basis of statistical probability in order to build a (mathematical rather than linguistic) ‘knowledge’ of what a word or phrase is likely to mean in a given context by analysing the surrounding words and comparing with the billions of sentences it has in its memory in the language pair. So: although the Chinese interpretation of the English phrase “like father, like son” actually consists of “one does not breed a donkey from a horse” – the computer can cope with the translation (in either direction). Language Studio even has controls that enable the output to be targeted: want it to read like The Economist? Or like a child’s school textbook? Simple – one mouse-click.

A major difference from Google Translate is that the latter trawls across the internet to find its contexts, while Asia Online has spent years inputting those billions of words and ‘teaching’ its engines (there are around 40 staff at the Bangkok headquarters). But Dion says Google’s decision to start charging for its enterprise service represented a vital tipping point for the industry: “machine translation now has a value. If you have to pay, you start looking around at who offers the best quality. Now, Asia Online is signing big, long-term contracts with companies that have the foresight to see what this service can do for them – and there are no boundaries. Think of a customer service centre (online) with a service technician ready to ‘chat’ with people in 50 countries at a time – with all of their questions instantly translated. Better customer handling, more accurate diagnoses, better reporting back to head office – it’s all possible and Asia Online can help clients unlock the potential.

Dion says he misses activities in New Zealand, such as skiing. But he is happy in Asia – “travelling many countries every week with Gartner cured me of ever wanting to be a tourist again” – and says things like schooling for his 13-year-old son, one of a crop of promising young rugby players in town, is both good and relatively affordable. Countries like Australia and New Zealand could make as much use of this new translation technology as Asian nations, he feels, because “they are part of the global village. It’s a trade enabler.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 19, 2018, 8:11 PM AEST