Google Now Translates as Much Text in a Day as Human Pros Can in a Year

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Today, Google announced that their translation engine, which is premised on simple machine learning techniques multiplied by vast volumes of data, now receives 200 million users per day. The scale of the service spins out some crazy stats about Google's role in language today. Here's Franz Och, a research scientist at the company:

In a given day we translate roughly as much text as you'd find in 1 million books. To put it another way: what all the professional human translators in the world produce in a year, our system translates in roughly a single day. By this estimate, most of the translation on the planet is now done by Google Translate.

Of course, Och pays lip service to human translators "for nuanced or mission-critical translations," but when you just want to know the basics of what someone is saying, Google does the trick. Machine translation really is an amazing service and something it's easy to underestimate now that we have it.

A key question over the next six years is how far Google's current techniques can take them. The strategy for the last six years has been constant: MORE DATA. But even Peter Norvig, head of Google Research, admits that there are declining returns to the more-data game. Certainly, it doesn't appear that just adding more data is going to yield Gary Snyder's translations of Chinese poetry. Eventually, it seems to me, Google (or any other translation software) will have to start understanding (in some way) the semantic content of the words it is arranging. And that's a much harder AI problem to solve than the one that's brought you the wonders of Google Translate.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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