06/13/2011 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ray Kurzweil on Translation Technology

Will advances in translation technology ever enable us to live in a society free of language barriers? I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with the well-known inventor, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil to ask him this and other questions about his views on the future of translation.

Ray Kurzweil on Translation Technology from Nataly Kelly on Vimeo.

According to Kurzweil, machines will reach human levels of translation quality by the year 2029. However, he was quick to highlight that even major technological advances in translation do not replace the need for language learning. "Even the best translators can't fully translate literature," he pointed out. "Some things just can't be expressed in another language. Each language has its own personality, so reading literature in the original language is going to remain better than even the best human translators." He noted, too, that very few people can actually master more than a handful of languages, and that ultimately, we will expand our intelligence through technologies that enable us to learn other languages more quickly.

In addition to text-based translation, numerous advances have taken place recently in converting spoken information from one language into another. In one of his books, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil predicted that spoken language translation would be common by the year 2019. When asked about this prediction, he noted, "It all depends on the level of quality you're looking for." He added, "I wouldn't say it's quite common yet even though the application exists. If you really want to capture the subtlety of what people say, that doesn't work quite yet." He also pointed out that, even though he believes computers will reach human levels of translation by 2029, human translation isn't perfect either, due to the many cultural concepts and parts of language are "untranslatable."

In another one of his books, Kurzweil commented on the work of Franz Och, who later became the brain behind Google Translate. When asked what led him to highlight Och's work at that time, he said, "I thought it was a good approach that he was using, which is to use the power of data to create intelligent systems." Kurzweil explained that this approach seemed more powerful than trying to painstakingly describe all the linguistic and grammar rules. He also noted that if the databases are expanded even further, the quality should continue to increase over time.

Kurzweil has long held an interest in the automation of language conversion. His company created a "translating telephone" demo for speech translation more than two decades ago. When asked about that technology, he explained, "It's not at human levels, but it's actually adequate for small talk or for business discussions, maybe not for the most poetic, romantic sentiments, but it is a mainstream technology and it will gradually get better and better." He explained that typically, when technologies like this are first introduced, they don't work very well and are quickly dismissed, but they slowly get better until they are perfected. "These things kind of sneak up on us. By the time they're revolutionary, they've been around, actually, for 20 years," he pointed out, in reference to the speech translation demo.

However, Kurzweil does not believe that translation technologies will replace human translators and interpreters. "These technologies don't replace whole fields, in general. What they do is replace a certain way of applying them." He provided the example of music, a field he worked in extensively, and the negative reaction of musicians' unions to synthesizers in the 1980s, driven by fears that these working professionals would lose the opportunity to make money. As Kurzweil pointed out, instead of losing the ability to make money, their profession simply evolved. "If you go to a music conference now, it's like a computer conference with these very powerful musical tools where musicians can command a whole orchestra, and so forth, and actually do a lot more with the technology. In fact, music is more vibrant than ever and musicians are very much in demand."

Because opportunities are changing, translation providers with inflexible business models that do not incorporate technology may indeed be at risk. However, Kurzweil sees a bright future for the language industry in general. "I think the demand for language is going to increase," he pointed out. "These tools are going to increase humans' ability, with the help of machines, to command greater ability to use language." A recent report from Common Sense Advisory validates this assertion, showing that the language services industry is growing at a fast pace, and that the demand for translation even grew throughout the economic downturn.

Many practitioners believe that translation is an art, so the parallel Kurzweil draws between the music field and translation is one that even the most technophobic translators will appreciate. In fact, Kurzweil went so far as to characterize translation as "the most high-level type of work one can imagine." He explained, "the epitome of human intelligence is our ability to command language. That is why Alan Turing based the Turing test, which is a test of whether or not a computer is operating at human levels, on a command of language."

Of course, it's precisely because of the complexity of translation that humans must harness the power of machines to improve it. "These tools are going to increase our ability to use, create, understand, manipulate and translate language," Kurzweil explained. "The idea is not to resist the tools, but to use them to do more."

Kurzweil's advice is right on target. This week, providers of localization will gather at Localization World in Barcelona to discuss technology among other topics, and technology will also be a primary focus of the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting later this week in Washington, D.C. Scalability and speed are two of the main drivers for both machine translation and interpreting technologies. So, using technology to "do more" with translation is not only good advice. It's becoming a requirement for society to cope with the explosion of content coupled with increased globalization.