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Humane AI pin is lost in translation

Humane AI pin is lost in translation


Of all the promises the Humane AI Pin made, the one that intrigued me the most was translation. At the demonstration, a man speaks to Humane co-founder Imran Chaudhry in Spanish. AI Pin will automatically translate it into English. Chaudhry replies in English. Again, the AI ​​pin translates his words back into Spanish. This is a powerful concept, although there is a noticeable pause during AI processing. Unlike with Google Translate, there was solid eye contact between the two. The AI's voice sounded more natural and less robotic. And crucially, there were no screens. Language barriers still existed, but were much more permeable.

When I tried it myself, that wasn't the case.

I spoke some simple phrases in Japanese and Korean. Instead of translating, the AI ​​pin spat gibberish at me. I asked my colleague David Pearce, who reviewed this damn thing, if I was doing anything wrong. That wasn't the case. It just didn't work.

The whole experience was interesting. It felt like the reward for the blood, sweat, and tears I put into learning a foreign language for 20 years. But when I saw Humanes' translation demo again, my heart broke. When my parents passed away, I wished something like this had happened to me.

Living among a multilingual immigrant family opens your eyes to how humans misunderstand each other. My story is not unique, but I grew up unable to communicate in my family's default language. I was forbidden to speak Korean since I was a child. Although my parents were fluent in both spoken and written English, their accents often made them feel unwelcome in America. They didn't want me to do that, so I grew up speaking perfect, unaccented English. I can understand Korean, and even though I was young, I was able to speak it a little. But eventually it lost that ability.

Become part of Chewbacca's family. When my family spoke to me in Korean, I responded in English and vice versa. After that, I started studying Japanese at a public school. Because my grandparents were fluent. Eventually, my family learned to speak English, Korean, and Japanese.

This arrangement was not ideal, but it was doable. That was until both of my parents were diagnosed with an incurable degenerative neurological disease. My father had Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. My mother had bulbar amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The English language they had studied for decades has evaporated.

That made everything twice as complicated. I shared caregiving duties with non-English speaking relatives. Both here and in South Korea, doctor visits had to be bilingual, which meant longer consultation times, more stress, more money, and more misunderstandings. Often I want to connect with my mother-in-law or aunt to coordinate care or vent about things that only we can understand. None of us could go beyond “I'm sad, I'll be on Monday, you'll be on Tuesday, or I'm sorry.” We were alone and we struggled together.

How much sadness and loneliness could have been avoided if Humane AI Pins' translation function had worked as demonstrated? Would it have made our burdens feel even a little lighter? Ever since I saw the demo again, I kept replaying those fantasies in my head. And I know that for the time being it will remain an illusion.

Real-time translation is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. There may be some things that cannot be fixed with humanity's current capabilities. Photo credit: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Better versions of Humanes translation technology already exist. Although Google Translate requires a screen, it is a widely known tool that acts as a digital interpreter. Still, Google Translate has struggled to keep up with all the advances in language. I know that's how Koreans write emails (lol), but they're totally messing with the Japanese idiom “tsutsumotase.” What you get is a direct but imprecise translation of the letters and an approximate definition. (The word refers to a particular type of badger game in which a man and a woman team up to extort money from another man.) Of course, English may be the lingua franca that unites technology, but some languages ​​are easier to translate than others. It is very likely that Humane chose the Spanish and French demos because they are more relevant to English. Maybe we just didn't have the same resources to actually build all the world's languages ​​and the countless permutations that come with them.

Tsutsumotase is a beauty station. “Confidence person” comes close to that meaning, but lacks the actual nuance of the phrase. Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

But those are the details of proficiency and fluency. Much less is required to survive in another language. That's where Google Translate excels. It's useful when you're traveling and need basic assistance like directions or ordering food. But life is lived in moments that are more complicated than simple transactions with strangers. When I decided to take off the oxygen mask, the only machine keeping my mother alive, I used some stupid pidgin to tell my family it was time to say goodbye. I could never pull out Google Translate for that. We all grieved when my mother passed away peacefully in her living room. Because of my limited Korean, I was unable to participate in many of the community's comforts. When I found out why, could I really have hit the pin at such a heavy moment and understood what her aunt was shouting?

Translation is an art, and art is what AI often gets wrong

Translation is an art, and art is something that AI often gets wrong. It is not enough to just spit out the immediate meaning. With high-context languages ​​like Japanese and Korean, you need to be able to translate what's not spoken, such as tone and relationships between speakers, to truly understand what's being conveyed. It's not rude if a Korean asks you your age. It literally determines how they should talk to you. In Japanese, the word “daijobu” means “are you okay?” It's okay, yes, no, thank you, everything is fine, depending on how you say it, don't worry. (See: This Ball Explains It.) It's confusing enough for humans to get it right, but how should an AI translation gadget trained by imperfect humans do it? is it?

Still, I can't help but look forward to the future that Humane will demonstrate. I can and will study Japanese and Korean all my life, but there will always be gaps. I have countless memories of times when I forgot how to speak a second and third language. When I was physically in pain, tense, or had to do math. (I guarantee you, everyone does math in their native language.) At times like these, it would be nice to have a simple, seamless way to ask for help. And to be understood.





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