In early November Google Translate took a Japanese translation of the opening of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and returned:
Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.
One day later Google Translate took the same passage and returned:
Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.
What happened on that day is that Google turned its Translate service over to Google Brain, it’s new division that uses “neural networks” to solve AI problems. Google Brain and it’s history is the subject of an excellent longread, The Great AI Awakening, from Gideon Lewis-Kraus (from which I have drawn the example).
Today, however, I want to make a different point. In my paper, Why Online Education Works, I wrote:
Online education has the potential to break the cost disease by substituting capital for labor and hitching productivity improvements in education to productivity improvements in software, artificial intelligence, and computing.
The improvements to Google Translate provide an example. Our Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics courses at Marginal Revolution University are captioned in over a hundred languages. Professional human-written captions have been produced for most of our videos in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic and we are working on more translations. Most of the translations, however, including those for Corsican, Kyrgyz, and Urdu are provided by Google. The earlier machine-translations weren’t great but were still useful to students in Pakistan who might need a bit of extra help to understand a new concept. The translations, however, are getting better.
Indeed, every improvement in Google Translate automatically becomes an improvement to Marginal Revolution University. Amazing.