AI and Human Interpreters – Foes or Friends?

Boao Forum shows there is a long road ahead for Machine Translation

Under the theme “An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity”, the Boao Forum 2018 was held last week in south China’s tropical Hainan Province. In recent years, Chinese companies have been making big strides in innovation and this was on show in Boao when Chinese interpreting services made the headlines. Tencent and AI start-up iFlytek provided AI-enabled transcription and translation services at the Forum; the AI devices stole the show at the Forum for the wrong reasons as they flubbed their lines. Tencent’s AI simultaneous interpretation machine had two functions: creating transcripts and providing simultaneous interpretation. Meanwhile, iFlytek’s AI portable voice translation machine was also supplying shorthand and translation services at the forum.


Embarrassing Translation Gaffes

The companies experienced failures at the scene as the machine translated speakers’ Chinese into garbled sequences, and English into meaningless Chinese. The reasons included environmental factors, different accents and speaking patterns, and misunderstandings of cultural and social norms. It translated the “Belt and Road” initiative into “a road and a waistband” which prompted widespread ridicule. We should add that President Xi Jinping opted for the expertise of humans and had a carefully crafted, human translated address – and so should you, dear readers.

Bridging the Gap between Human and Machine Translation


In the translation industry, AI now is equipped with the function of Neural Translation which increases the accuracy and quality of a machine’s output. Teaching machines to truly understand natural language has been one of the biggest challenges facing computer scientists working to advance artificial intelligence for decades.

The lack of clear-cut, defined rules that make language meaningful and changing language use means it is extremely hard for AI to interpret meaning competently. Communication is about making human connections – it’s a special skill to be able to accurately steer a narrative across languages and cultures. Not to mention having a human present who can navigate between the cultures and smooth out those other intangible gaps or problems before they arise.

Robots Can’t Interpret Common Sense

The cover of the recent issue of “The New Yorker” is very impressive: a bearded young beggar in the street with an empty coffee cup begging from a robot passing by. The robot is putting some screws and nuts into his coffee cup.


This cartoon magnifies people’s concerns: artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are taking over and causing more and more people to lose their jobs. Not only repetitive tasks, for example drivers, but also expert jobs, such as accountants, doctors, journalists, traders, programmers, engineers, and even translators are being challenged.. Artificial intelligence is working 24/7 sucking up information on global trends from books, social media, news, financial data, corporate earnings, international monetary policies, weather forecasts – you name it! It can give predictions in one second, so they say – if only it were that simple!

We should not be afraid. AI is smart, while human beings can be wise.  We, translators and interpreters, need to harness technological innovation which can help us deliver higher quality and faster work to our clients, but maintain the human touch and commonsense and deliver more than just words on a page.



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