Lydia H. Liu’s writing on Writing (and also Cary Wolfe’s essay on Language) reminded me of the recent-ish announcement from Google Translate that they had switched from phrase-based translation to zero-shot translation with the development of the Google Neural Machine Translation system.

The New York Times opens their related story with the anecdote of a Japanese HCI professor testing out the improvements by rewriting the intro of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in Japanese and using Google Translate to return it to English. They included the translation and the original (which I am also including, because it’s pretty good):

No. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

No. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Of course people, reporters, and bloggers hyped this up, writing about how

“A neural computing system designed to translate content from one human language into another developed its own internal language to make the task more efficient. Without being told to do so. In a matter of weeks.”

Gil Fewster later added updates to his post and linked to some of the better-informed commenters, and I fell into the search rabbit hole looking at various viewpoints of this one announcement. Again this semester, this goes to show how much we don’t understand about technology, and it’s also interesting to see how we write about these technologies.

Liu also called to mind the writing of our technology, that is to say, the writing of the code behind it.

“The complexity of social organizations in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese civilizations—often associated with record keeping, accumulated wealth, religious power, commerce, law and treaty making, and so on—conferred special prestige upon writing and by extension, scribes. Priests, who were often scribes, sometimes held a monopoly of knowledge through which they dominated organizations of political power” (page 314).

Perhaps it was a recent trip to San Francisco that reminded how much monetary value we place on those who code, and our discussions in class certainly explore how much power the human factors in our technology have.

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