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Google, Kurzweil, and the Information Transformation Age

Google's self-declared mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It's impossible for Google to accomplish this without translation.
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Last week, Google announced the hiring of Ray Kurzweil, who will work to solve complex language processing problems, among other things. In an interview last year, Kurzweil pointed out that language processing issues are among the most difficult problems to solve. Kurzweil will join the same company that employs Franz Och, the mastermind behind Google Translate (both were interviewed for my new book, Found in Translation). This is extremely important news -- far more important than most people realize.

Google Translate is not just a tool that enables people on the web to translate information, although that's how people know it on the surface. It's a strategic tool for Google itself. Google's self-declared mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It's impossible for Google to accomplish this without translation. In fact, translation is one of the most critical components of this mission. The world's information cannot be accessible if it's locked up in languages that people cannot understand. The only way to unlock that information is through translation.

In addition, for people to access that information, translating text is simply not enough. Of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages used in the world today, only 2,261 have a writing system. However, virtually all languages are spoken or signed. Google has already shown success at mashing up technologies that first recognize speech and convert it to text, then translate that text into another language, and finally spit it back out in another spoken language. However, even Google's best attempts -- like those of other companies -- need a lot of refinement before they truly cross the threshold into accessible, let alone useful.

Indeed, useful is an important word to look at when trying to understand the importance of translation in Google's mission statement. What does it really mean for information to be useful to people? It means that they can understand it easily and readily, in their preferred communication styles, so that they can do something with it. The implications of this are vast and go beyond mere language translation.

One implication might be a technology that can translate from one generation to another. Or how about one that slows down your speech or turns up the volume for an elderly person with hearing loss? That enables a stroke victim to use the clarity of speech he had previously? That can filter out cultural taboos? That can automatically change the reading level to match the age or literacy level of the individual? That can convert legalese into plain language? That can pronounce using your favorite accent? That can convert academic jargon to local slang? These are just a sampling of the many ways that better language processing can change our lives in very useful ways.

But none of this can happen -- at least, not on a global scale -- without translation. Some of it can happen within a given language, but not beyond the confines of it, or as Google would put it, universally, unless translation is part of the equation.

When I visited Google recently, I gave a talk about the importance of translation. I stated my assertion that, as a society, we are moving beyond the Information Age, and into the Information Transformation Age. I also shared the notion that translators are as critical to this societal transition as blacksmiths were to helping us advance to the Industrial Age.

In the move into the Industrial Age, railroads were built that could transport materials back and forth for processing and transformation into other goods that would improve our quality of life. What Google is now trying to build is a modern-day equivalent of the railroad. It's a transportation system that is invisible to the world, but that would enable us to transport and process our raw content materials from one language to another, and to transform them for purposes that would also, we hope, improve our quality of life. This is what making the world's information useful and accessible really means.

Forget the old-fashioned notion of the information superhighway. The future of information will not travel on something as simplistic as a multi-lane highway. It requires a vastly different and more complex type of engineering -- a high-speed, multi-layered system that traverses land, air, and water, with automatic passport controls and seamless border screenings along the way. Not only that, but it's transformative. In this system, information can walk into one checkpoint as the raucous chant of a 22-year-old American football player and walk out as the quiet whisper of a 78-year-old Albanian grandmother. That's the vision, or at least, a small part of it.

Why should you care? Google holds an indisputably important position in the world today. The company is hiring Kurzweil to advance its mission, of which language processing -- and translation -- play a critical part. How long will it take for all people to have information at their fingertips in a useful and understandable format? Only with time can we know when and how it will unfold and exactly what role Google and Kurzweil will play. But one thing is certain -- in the race to unbury and unlock all the world's content treasures, each stage at which these riches are shared will lead humanity toward a better quality of life.

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