Technology has been disrupting traditional business models and obliterating entire professions with brutal efficiency for many centuries. The disruption of well-established business models has picked up speed considerably at the beginning of the 21st century, in particular in connection with the ubiquity of cheap or free Wi-Fi Internet connections.
Technology first replaced the majority of human bank tellers over the last few decades with much cheaper ATM machines. ATM machines are very reliable and unlike some humans, generally quite honest when it comes to manipulating cash. But ATM machines are now serving fewer and fewer customers per hour as they themselves are being replaced by a different technology because more and more people are using their smartphones to deposit checks to save time-consuming trips to the bank.
Five years ago, very few people were using their phones to deposit checks. Five years from now, it’s likely that very few people will be still using ATMs and that the humans left on the other side of the bank counter will be mostly managers specialized in different types of services offered by banks – generally the most lucrative types of services.
To miss the significance of a technological change often means buying yourself and your business model a one way ticket to oblivion. Because the management of Blockbuster Corporation failed to realize quickly enough the importance of a somewhat unreliable technology called streaming for its own business model which was based on video rentals, Blockbuster stores have disappeared from the landscape of American cities, and this had already happened starting quite a few years ago. By the time Blockbuster’s management tried to reluctantly incorporate streaming into its own business model, it was too late to prevent the company’s bankruptcy.
Similarly, the Blackberry brand is no longer king among cell phones because the company’s management insisted for too long that its own type of tactile keyboard coupled with a small display is the best option for all of its customers.
Publishers of maps and dictionaries have been hit particularly hard by GPS technology and multilingual Internet databases and search engines. Why spend money on paper maps and paper dictionaries when you already have a phone that lets you use all kinds of maps and all kinds of dictionaries in many languages?
Examples of traditional types of services that have recently been very seriously disrupted by the Internet also include taxi and hotel services. Since just about anybody can drive a car, and many people who have a spare room in their house might be willing to rent it occasionally to guests in exchange for reasonable remuneration, new startups called Uber and Airbnb have quickly sprang to life, complicating the life of cab drivers and owners and employees of traditional hotel and bed and breakfast establishments and threatening the very existence of their professions.
Cable TV is in big trouble too, because young people no longer watch cable. My son came from the university of Michigan where he is working now to spend a week with his boring parents over the New Year period. I set the TV in his room to a channel that I like to watch but that I knew he would not watch (HGTV with House Hunters and House Hunters International). When I turned the TV in his former room on after he left, it was still on the HGTV channel, which must mean that he never even turned it on.
One could go on and on listing examples of even more pitiful carcasses of formerly unbeatable business models strewn along the highway of technological progress.
It seems only logical that the profession of human translators should soon go the way of human bank tellers, most of who have been replaced by machines. Given that machine translation has been easily available to just about anyone mostly for free for at least a decade now, it’s kind of inexplicable that every year when I prepare my tax return, I still list as source of all of my income “translation”, and human translation in particular.
After all, machine translations of most patent applications have been available on the websites of the Japan Patent Office, European Patent Office and World Intellectual Property Organization for well over a decade now, and one of the first things that I do after I have downloaded the text of a patent application from one of these websites is that I also download a copy of the machine translation. But my customers still pay me a lot of money for some reason for human translations of the same patents, although they too obviously have had access to free machine translation for a long time now.
The problem is of course, that “machine translation is not quite there yet”, although we’re constantly being told that, “it will be just as good as human translation a few years from now”. That is what we’ve been told, mostly by people who don’t know anything about translation and people who are selling machine translation, at least since the 80s or the 90s.
Mad Patent Translator is in a small minority of people who keep saying that machine translation will not be just as good as human translation in a few years from now, be it five years, 50 years, or 500 years from now. It’s natural that most people expect instant miracles from new technology, including machine translation. We’re all in awe of recent technological miracles, technology that is making our lives much easier on the one hand, while on the other hand is also putting us all in danger, as we are mostly unable to protect ourselves from being illegally spied on and exploited by powerful corporations and almost equally powerful government, not to mention the cops, or even our neighbors and people who simply want to rip us off because that is the business model that they use and that is how they make a living.
But Wi-Fi streaming is not a miracle, nor is the General Positioning System (GPS), or high-speed wireless transmission of images of checks a miracle. They’re just a few of the recent technological developments in a few fields of technology spurred by the Internet, logically following the development of hardware and software that controls Automated Teller Machines (ATMs).
If you take a closer look at what happened to humans working in the banking industry, you will see that many humans are still there on the other side of the counter, smiling courteously and graciously at customers entering the bank to get them to part with their money. The only human tellers who were replaced were those who weren’t able to figure out much more than how to accept deposits and hand out cash. All of those human tellers have already been replaced by machines. But although we don’t see it, many new humans were also hired by the same banks. You can’t simply leave for example the decision of whether somebody’s signature on a check is genuine to a machine. You need a human to make important decisions, a human who is often assisted by any number of machines, because machines, smart as they are, are also incredibly stupid.
If you gave a highly intelligent, self-recreating machine an instruction to ensure that no humans will be harmed in the future by highly intelligent machines, one possible decision that such a machine could make would be to put something in the water ensuring that no new humans are born. After all, since nobody can harm unborn humans, the instruction would be executed perfectly. By the time humans had realized what was happening, it might be too late for machine-trusting humans to survive.
Some of the most nefarious actors in “the translation industry” love the new tools of what they now call “language technology”. They love the concept of machine translation not as a tool to be used to empower human translators, but rather as a tool empowering the middlemen to exploit human translators. The basic concept of the strategy on which “post-processing of machine translation” is based is to make it possible to control people with technology forcing humans to assist machines instead of using technology to assist human workers.
Many new startups are jumping at the chance to exploit human translators in this manner, and more will do so in the future. As I wrote in another post, a brand new translation agency called last month to offer me a chance at “a copy editing opportunity”.
When I asked how long the company had been in business, the woman who called me said, “We have just bought the website”. In other words, they don’t really know anything about anything, including translation. When I went to the new startup’s website, I saw all kinds of typical agency propaganda about teams of translators working selflessly and tirelessly together to craft the perfect translation in record time. But I also saw that the company intends to basically use available machine translation engines such as GoogleTranslate and Microsoft Translator, and then to throw the machine pseudo-translations at human translators whose job would be to retranslate texts full of MT errors and MT gibberish into something that would resemble a real translation.
That was the exciting “copy editing opportunity” that the company was offering to me, at the rate of one cent a word.
A similar approach to translation is really nothing but a blatant attempt at wage theft. I don’t know whether an attempt to reclassify translators as “copy editors” or “post-processors” in order to pay them a fraction of what they should be paid for their work is even legal, although I do know that it ought to be illegal.
Unfortunately, “the translation industry” apparently has such a stranglehold on some translators’ associations in some countries that that they have been turned into a handy propaganda arm of “the translation industry”. As I wrote in the same post linked above, the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle has been publishing articles celebrating the progress of post processing of machine translation and advocating its use for many years now. Not once has it published an article that would question the greedy premise behind the logic and usefulness of this fatally flawed approach to intellectual activities represented in this case by translating and writing.
If human translators fall for this trap and cooperate with “the translation industry”, they will not be eliminated by highly intelligent machines who may decide that the best way to protect human translators is to make sure that no new translators are born. But they may eventually be eliminated by greedy, ignorant and selfish humans who may decide that the best way to make profit from machine translation is to eliminate human translators by turning them into “post-processors”, “post-editors” or “copy editors” of machine translation, because that would be a very good way to force human translators to retranslate the result of regurgitated machine detritus at the rate of one cent a word.
The business model of human translation is not being disrupted by new technology. On the contrary, new technology, including machine translation, is an excellent tool that can be used by many human translators.
But the business model of human translation is now being threatened by greedy operators in “the translation industry” who are trying to capitalize on new technology and use it in order to turn us into slaves.