A recipe for intimacy?

Mark Zuckerberg posted the following statement on his Facebook feed:
“Today we’re publishing research on how AI can deliver better language translations. With a new neural network, our AI research team was able to translate more accurately between languages, while also being nine times faster than current methods.

Getting better at translation is important to connect the world. We already perform over 2 billion translations in more than 45 languages on Facebook every day, but there’s still a lot more to do. You should be able to read posts or watch videos in any language, but so far the technology hasn’t been good enough.

Throughout human history, language has been a barrier to communication. It’s amazing we get to live in a time when technology can change that. Understanding someone’s language brings you closer to them, and I’m looking forward to making universal translation a reality. To help us get there faster, we’re sharing our work publicly so that all researchers can use it to build better translation tools.”

Key messages: taking time to understand people is for fools, and language is the problem.
When did language become a barrier to communication?  Would we not be hard pressed to communicate much at all without it?  Doesn’t machine translation have the potential to create as much distance as ‘understanding?’   Building intimacy (for this is what I take the phrase “brings you closer” to mean) is not about having a rough idea of what someone is saying, it is about understanding the nuance of every gesture, every reference and resonance.  Isn’t the joy of encountering a new culture tied up in the journey of discovery we make on the road to understanding?
I salute Facebook for making their research and software open, but a bit of humility in the face of the awesome and varied systems of signs and significations we humans have built could make this so much better news.

3 thoughts on “A recipe for intimacy?

  1. Oh, great – the founder of Facebook provides us with an perfect example of how to misuse socio-cultural data:
    First take a very complex dataset (facial expressions, prosody, body language, mimic, gestures …. and: language) and reduce it to only one of its dimensions (here: written language). Then declare this single aspect of communication to be a problem in intercultural encounters. Solve the problem and declare yourself to be the savior of the world.

    I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg has ever a) visited a market / bazaar / souq and bought something from a vendor without using spoken language. This is a magic situation because it works everywhere in the world.
    And whether he has ever b) used Skype, talking to a lot of people whom he doesn’t know. This, in my experience is a perfect example of how misunderstandings are produced regularly, because everything is reduced to spoken language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘To translate is to displace … But to translate is also to express in one’s own language what others say and want, why they act in the way they do and how they associate with each other; it is to establish oneself as a spokesman. At the end of the process, if it is successful, only voices speaking in unison will be heard.’

    Michel Callon ‘Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay’ in Kristin Asdal, Brita Brenna and Ingunn Moser (eds.) (2007) Technoscience: the Politics of Interventions

    Liked by 1 person

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