Monday, March 04, 2013

implications of innovations

My quick overview of Google's innovations has been interesting. I am most interested in Google Translate (see below) but have discovered Google Glass and Google Now. Google Now is a personalized Google that will basically combine all your data and give you what you want. Google Glass is literally the ability to carry around a screen in your vision, i.e. in your glasses, that will bring all kinds of navigation aids to bear; for example, as you walk around a new city, this little screen up in the corner of your glasses can tell you where you've been, where you're going, where the nearest Italian restaurant is, etc. All for about $1500.

There is what is known as the law of unintended consequences, but without delving into these innovations I'd like to explore, instead, the consequences of Google Translate itself. It so happens that GT is aggressively researching in many languages, and that they consider this a very useful direction to be going in the future. Even now I feel confident in saying that the average English speaker can use GT to catch every Spanish-language newspaper and get the news in reasonably good English, with of course a few idiomatic trouble-spots. French is not far behind. GT is a little slower with the languages, such as Korean, that require massive shifting and reconstruction, but, it is whaling away at these also and adding new ones, such as Kazakh and Yiddish, to the list.

Naturally the sex industry has found this first. I'm not sure how that happened, or what they use it for. It seems to me that since the sex industry deals mostly in pictures, it doesn't really matter what language the captions are in. But it does matter, what's found by search engines, what gets called up when you type in certain things, etc. So in that sense, maybe GT has become useful just as a machine-based, instant encryptor.

Based on the law of unintended consequences, I think there are a lot of uses of this new set of GT tools. For one, the group of bright people who chose to learn a language, such as Spanish, is not necessarily the same as the group of people who would have time, or patience, or work for the low pay necessary, to cull through every Spanish-language newspaper for any given kind of information. But now, virtually anyone can do that, without having to learn Spanish. And similarly, people are observing our society through similar glasses. It is no longer necessary to know us or even talk to us in order to find out, for example, where everything happens, or who lives where, or where the banks are.

Second, we have these languages, like Yiddish and Kazakh, which have machine-translatable abilities associated with them. But let's say the speakers of Yiddish don't keep very good track of the archives of things written in Yiddish. I've said this before, actually: lesser-known languages provide the user with probably the best if not only kind of privacy on the web. You put something in Yiddish, you encode it, or make it look like old archives, and it will sit there forever, and even the search engines won't find it. Or maybe they will, but everyone will say, that's some old Yiddish document. And they'll only be able to read it by going through trouble that nobody will think to go through.

My sense is that there are other unintended consequences here. I'm worried, of course, about the entire ESL profession, but only because it sustained me for 20 years. My time is over; I'm retired. If a machine does what I used to, that's not such a big problem for me. I'm considering going into the obscure languages business, though.


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