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“You Are Not What You Write”

Non c’è peggio di fare la cosa giusta nel momento sbagliato.” If you want to know what the Italian phrase means right away, you can check it on Google Translate. Or you can wait to read it until you get to the end of this article, unless you have an Italian-speaker nearby.

By now, everyone who regularly engages in polyglot relations in this ever-shrinking world, uses Google Translate. Almost everybody must have noticed how dramatically it has improved, from barely intelligible to almost publish-worthy. Professional translators now discuss it in hush tones and it’s a dirty secret in the trade that many rely on it, heavily. Salesmen of appalling translation software, comparable to psychological torture inflicted on armies of powerless employees by clueless managers, are trembling for their jobs.

The reason is this. When introducing the revamped service, Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai chose this phrase by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: “Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.” Until a few months ago, Google Translate rendered it thus into English: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.” It now translates it, “You are not what you write, but what you have read.” That’s worth going into final copy, right?

The miracle happened thus. A group of scientists at a division that was soon dubbed Google Brain reworked the entire system around a principle of “neural networks” that had fallen out of favor among computer scientists. One of them, Geoffrey Hinton, of the more eccentric breed, had been toiling in obscurity in these later years until a number of Google young prodigies brought him on board.

Due to a legal quirk, the 70-year-old Hinton was hired as an intern at the company, and he felt out of place in an office where he couldn’t understand the workplace slang. But then a disciple recognized him and that made him feel better. Another one of the geniuses to whom we owe this is Quoc Le, a young man from Hue, Vietnam. His parents were rice farmers so poor that electricity was spotty. And yet, he grew up to fulfill his dreams, from the failed chatbot he tried to build at school in Vietnam, to revolutionize translation software. And, as you probably guess by now, the way we are going to live (or survive) soon.

For what Hinton, Quoc Le and the others developed at Google Brain was, precisely, a system that teaches itself languages. How? It simply mimics the brain. Intelligence is a function of the connections between neurons, rather than the aggregate of raw information, in the same way that a dictionary is not more intelligent than you. Thus, the computer behind Google Translate is one that is developing the interconnections between neurons by trial and error, rewarding those connections that prove correct.

This, as you realize, is going to change the way we live. These computers will soon pass the Turing test for artificial intelligence: after five minutes they will fool humans into believing they are talking to a peer.

Don’t fear, yet. As long as we instruct those computers what to do, we humans should be on the safe side. Yet the challenges for the workforce are there. And they may come sooner than we expect. Well-paid lawyers (not that many tears will be shed over this) may soon lose their jobs. So may financial advisors, and other qualified professionals, besides translators. For these computers will learn. And you bet they will become better than us at what they do, in the same way that they can beat a chess or Go master.

Two more things: as long as these supercomputers are not trusted to run societies, we should be fine. For if they were programmed according to the variables by which the economy and labor markets are governed today, these computers would be worse than the meanest managers as we know them today. And get ready: revolutions don’t ask for permission to come. When they do, you are on your own. No one will protect you. Hold your ground, or you may be swept away.

Oh, and the opening phrase in Italian means: “There is nothing worse than doing the right thing at the wrong time.” The new Google Translate version is: “There’s nothing worse than doing the right thing at the wrong time.” Not too bad for a beginner, no? As we said, we better get ready. We are now on our own.

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