The ATA Chronicle - July/August 2020 - 30

FUTURE TENSE: THRIVING AMID THE GROWING TENSION BETWEEN
LANGUAGE PROFESSIONALS AND INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS continued

Figure 1: An exponential curve covering 100 years, centered on 2020 (The figures on the vertical axis represent the rate of technological
change compared to a base of 1 in the 1970s.)

then turns around and travels in a straight line until it hits the
next obstacle in its path is clever, perhaps, but brutish. A smart
speaker, on the other hand, which has the ability to understand
spoken commands and responds in kind, is on a completely
different level.
Linguistic sophistication is so integral to our understanding
of intelligence that it's hard to imagine us calling anything
"intelligent" that doesn't have the capacity-or the ability to
develop the capacity-to understand and manipulate language.
AI needs the ability to use language to live up to our expectations
of what it should be.

THE UNEVENLY DISTRIBUTED FUTURE
As cyberpunk novelist William Gibson said in an interview in The
Economist in 2001, "The future is already here; it's just not evenly
distributed."2 It's one thing for technology to be developed and
available, but it's another thing altogether for it to be deployed
widely and used.
In our famously fragmented industry, where, according to
CSA Research, the top 10 companies make up less than 10%
of the market3, it's not surprising that technology advances at
markedly different rates among the various types and
sizes of language services providers. From multinational
language services providers with millions of dollars of
revenue, to regional players, to local translation shops, to
individual language professionals, we all have limited
amounts of time and money to invest in technology, and we
make those investments as wisely as possible to excel in our
specific markets.
The fundamental questions that should be on the minds of
every language services provider who intends to be gainfully
employed in the future are:
30

The ATA Chronicle | July/August 2020

■	

What will my customers need at that time?

■	

What skills and tools do I need to fulfill those needs in a
manner that makes me stand out from my competition?

In other words, the pertinent question is not "Will NMT and
AI systems make translators obsolete?" but instead the much
more optimistic and self-directive, "What do I need to do to
thrive as a language services provider in the future?" If you're
not paying close attention to technology trends, however, you
won't have an adequate answer to that question. After all, your
customers' needs and those skills and tools you need to develop
don't exist in a vacuum but in a world that's increasingly imbued
by ever more intelligent systems.

THE EVOLUTION OF INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS
AI systems, both current and future, can be classified along a
spectrum of how autonomously they are able to act.
Systems that do: These are machines that perform a single,
albeit sometimes very complex, task that requires the acquisition
and application of knowledge. This knowledge is presented to
the system in the form of many examples of the starting point
and end point of the task (such as a massive translation memory
used as training material for an MT system). These systems can
never be better than the training material and are unable to
improve without human intervention.
Systems that learn: These are machines that can not only
perform a task that requires the acquisition and application of
knowledge, but can also iteratively improve their performance of
that task without human intervention.
Systems that truly think: Also called artificial general
intelligence (AGI), these are machines, still in the realm of science
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The ATA Chronicle - July/August 2020

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