Welcome to the era of the AI coworker



Last fall, Google Translate rolled out a new-and-improved artificial intelligence translation engine that it claimed was, at times, “nearly indistinguishable” from human translation. Jost Zetzsche could only roll his eyes. The German native had been working as a professional translator for 20 years, and he’d heard time and time again that his industry would be threatened by advances in automation. Every time, he’d found, the hype was overblown—and Google Translate’s makeover was no exception. It certainly wasn’t the key to translation, he thought.

But it was remarkably good. Google had spent the better part of 2016 reworking its translation tool to be powered by AI—and in doing so, it had created something unnervingly powerful. Google Translate, once known for producing stilted but passable translations, had begun producing fluid, highly accurate prose. The kind of output that, to the untrained eye, was nearly indistinguishable from human translation. A 15,000-word New York Times story hailed it as “the great AI awakening.” The engine quickly began learning new tricks, figuring out how to translate language pairs it hadn’t encountered before: If it could do English to Japanese and English to Korean, it could figure out Korean to Japanese. At last month’s Pixel 2 launch, Google took its ambitious agenda a step further, introducing wireless headphones that it promised could translate 40 languages in real-time.

Since IBM debuted its pioneering machine translation system in 1954, the notion of a flawless machine translator has captured the imagination of programmers and the public alike. Science fiction writers have seized upon the idea, serving up utopian visions ranging from Star Trek’s Universal Translator to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Babel Fish. Human-level translation—fluent prose that captures the meaning of the source text—is a holy grail of machine learning: one of the “AI-complete” challenges that, if conquered, would indicate that a machine had reached a human level of intelligence. The fanfare around Google’s advances in neural machine translation implied that the grail was within reach—and, along with it, the moment when human workers become obsolete.

But translators have long been on the frontlines of AI-induced job panic, and they aren’t worried. In fact, some are delighted. For those that have seized on the potential of AI tools, productivity has skyrocketed, along with demand for their work.

Think of them as the canary in the white-collar coal mine. At the moment, they’re still singing. As deep learning burgeons, many industries are coming to grips with the fact that AI is indeed capable of tasks that were once regarded as deeply human. Unlike drivers and warehouse employees, knowledge workers aren’t in immediate danger of being displaced. But as AI becomes an essential part of their workflow, their jobs are changing—and there’s no guarantee that today’s helpful AI tools won’t become a threat in the future. This presents workers with a choice: Set aside your ego and embrace your new AI coworker, or get left behind.

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