Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has announced an ambitious new AI research project to create translation software that works for “everyone in the world”. The project was announced at an event focusing on the wide range of benefits that Meta believes AI can offer to the company’s Metaverse plans.
“The ability to communicate with anyone in any language – it’s a superpower that people have always dreamed of, and AI is going to deliver that in our lifetime,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an online presentation.
The company says that although commonly spoken languages like English, Mandarin and Spanish are well supported by current translation tools, around 20% of the world’s population does not speak the languages covered by these systems. Often these underserved languages do not have easily accessible written text corpora that are needed to train AI systems or sometimes have no standardized writing system at all.
Meta says it wants to overcome these challenges by deploying new machine learning techniques in two specific areas. The first goal, dubbed No Language Left Behind, will focus on building AI models that can learn to translate language using fewer training examples. The second, Universal Speech Translator, will aim to build systems that directly translate speech in real time from one language to another without the need for a written component to act as an intermediary (a common technique for many translation applications ).
In one blog post In announcing the news, the researchers at Meta did not offer a timeline for completing these projects or even a roadmap for major milestones in achieving their goal. Instead, the company emphasized the utopian possibilities of universal translation.
“Eliminating language barriers would be profound, allowing billions of people to access information online in their native or preferred language,” they write. “Progress in [machine translation] won’t just help people who don’t speak one of the languages that dominate the internet today; they will also fundamentally change the way people around the world connect and share ideas. »
Crucially, Meta also envisions that such technology would greatly benefit its products globally, expanding their reach and transforming them into essential communication tools for millions of people. The blog post notes that the universal translation software would be a deadly application for future wearable devices like AR glasses (which Meta is building) and would also break boundaries in “immersive” VR and AR reality spaces (which Meta is also building). ). In other words, while developing universal translation tools can have humanitarian benefits, it also makes business sense for a company like Meta.
It is certainly true that advances in machine learning over the past few years have dramatically improved the speed and accuracy of machine translation. A number of major tech companies, from Google to Apple, are now offering users free AI translation tools, which are used for work and tourism, and are undoubtedly providing incalculable benefits around the world. But the underlying technology also has its issues, with reviewers noting that machine translation lack of critical nuances for human speakers, injects gender bias in his outings, and is able to throw these strange and unexpected errors only a computer can. Some speakers of rare languages also say they fear lose control of their speech and their culture if the ability to translate their words is controlled only by big tech.
Accounting for such errors is essential when massive platforms like Facebook and Instagram automatically apply such translations. Take, for example, a case from 2017 where a Palestinian was arrested by Israeli police after Facebook’s machine translation software mistranslated a post he shared. The man wrote “hello” in Arabic, but Facebook translated that to “hurt them” in English and “attack them” in Hebrew.
And while Meta has long aspired to global access, the company’s own products remain geared toward the countries that provide the bulk of its revenue. Internal documents released as part of the Facebook Papers revealed how the company struggle to moderate hate speech and abuse in languages other than English. These blind spots can have incredibly deadly consequences, such as when the company failed to tackle misinformation and hate speech in Myanmar before the Rohingya genocide. And similar cases involving dubious translations occupy Facebook’s supervisory board to this day.
So while a universal translator is an incredible aspiration, Meta will have to prove not only that its technology is up to the task, but that as a company it can apply its research fairly.