The Future of Translation

"The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgment." Brian Eno

In the way that thinking about the future often leads you to think about the past, recent advances in speech recognition and language translation software have had me thinking about my old French teacher, Richard “Piggy” Marsden.

Back in the mid 1970’s it was Piggy’s unenviable task to try and teach me and my classmates the difference between feminine and masculine past participles when all I really cared about was the difference between the Sex Pistols and The Clash. [Answer; the Sex Pistols were the puppets of a propagandist, The Clash were a rock and roll band].

Mr. Marsden – ah, heck, why change the habit of a lifetime, Piggy - was, as I recall through 40 years of mist, a terrifically nice person. Unlike many of his colleagues who seemed to revel in the opportunities to be unpleasant to the inmates, Piggy was a gentle soul who appeared to be on the side of us kids, not the other teachers. Though he tried hard to drum the beau language into my tete laide (in fact, I even had extra remedial lessons with him) in the end he had to admit defeat as I failed to trouble the scorers when “O” level time came around. [My failure entirely sir, not yours].

Fast forward to today and I wonder what Piggy (and all his colleagues) in the language teaching business think about the imminent collapse of their profession?

Let’s face it; we are on the brink of one of the major themes of science fiction becoming fact.

Soon – very soon – I will be able to walk into the Café Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and say “Good evening, I’d like a table for two please. By the window. And please send over a bottle of your best champagne and six oysters as quickly as possible, thank you so much my good man” in English, at the normal pace at which I speak, and immediately be understood by the defiantly non-English speaking maître d’ as my words are rendered in perfect French.

Oh Piggy, the very thought must make you weep.

For cretins like me this technological breakthrough is nothing short of magnifique! With the ability to understand and be understood anywhere in the world all sorts of trips that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before will now make it onto my bucket list; not just the 6th arrondissement but the Russian steppes, the heart of African darkness, the back streets of the Kasbah - nowhere will be beyond the comprendo of an Englishman abroad.

Learning a foreign language has been a hallmark of a good education (and the font of many people’s paycheck) for a couple of hundred years but now you’ve got to wonder, why bother? To learn grammar? OK, but why not spend more time learning the grammar of your own primary language? (My failure to learn French was, in large part, nothing to do with Piggy; I hadn’t been taught English grammar before starting to learn French grammar so I didn’t really even know what a past participle was – though I went to a grammar school). To learn about the culture of a foreign country? OK, but why not just go there now given that it’s so easy to speak their language through the software on the phone? To see your own country through the eyes of people from other countries? OK, but again, if we can go and chat to people in Paris or Tunis or Buenos Aires, face to face, or over Face Time, today, as 14 year olds, why don’t we just get on with it, rather than spending five years on theory in a classroom before we venture out into the real world?

Though education is a precious and delicate thing, which should be adjusted slowly and gently and should be wary of fads and fashions, the idea that the curricula for the middle of the 21st century should remain untouched and immune to technological driven progress seems a difficult case to make.

Why don’t French women get fat? Because software’s eating everything.

Did Jim Kirk learn Klingon at the Starfleet Academy? No, he perfected the Kobayashi Maru and how to suck in his stomach so it fit his too tight tunic. He knew that the Universal Translator would take care of the bothersome aspects of talking to the Klingon Chancellor. How many Klingon teachers were at the Academy? None.

Learning a language now just seems like a terrific waste of time. Better to learn the language of the future – code.

Except ...

(You knew there was an except coming didn’t you – if there hadn’t been an except this would have just been a rant, a 40 year dish of revenge served from a very cold freezer).

... translation might be the most valuable skill anyone has to learn in a future where code rules.

But not your father’s translation (or Piggy’s). A new type of translation – translating points of view.

Think about it this way; Cortana or Siri or Alexa or Amy or Baxter will do the translating – the nitty gritty technical work of making my “alright mate” Piggy’s “bonjour”- but translating Piggy’s shrug of the shoulders - as he speaks - into my wink of my eye - as I listen - and knowing what these gestures mean and imply will remain a human grade task long into the Singularity.

Software will increasingly let us understand but make understanding more difficult.

Software based translation will mix up people of different languages at a scale that the world has never seen before. Latvians will talk to Maoris. Filipinos will talk to Peruvians. Zambians will talk to Kuwaitis. Not in English as they may do today but in their own language. And not just small numbers of the more adventurous who wander far afield, but huge numbers of regular ordinary folk who would never have learned a second or a third or a 17th language but now can chat away about the World Cup final or global warming or Donald Trump.

Software based translation will bring together people in ways that have never been possible before in a global experiment in which we will all be guinea pigs.

It is not hard to see incredible, wonderful things arising from this extraordinary new capability. Nation shall speak peace unto nation. There will be no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met (and spoken to in their own language) yet.

A post nation-state world will likely move closer to reality.

But in the global melting pot of a universal babel fish mediated world genuine understanding will probably be more tricky than ever, for below language lies meaning, and meaning is the repository of DNA, history, culture, ambition, anxiety, and time, that flow deep into the soil on which you stand.

This truth is observable in the more mundane surrounds of our everyday workplace. The marketer sits with the procurement clerk – do you understand where I’m coming from? Do you know what I mean? The business analyst sits with the end user – you really don’t get this, do you. The CEO sits with the CIO – one of them is from Mars, the other, Venus.

The world – our working world – is full of misunderstanding; even when we’re speaking the same tongue.

The language of finance is different from the language of medicine which is different from the language of soccer which is different from the langue of sales which is different from the language of love.

Misunderstanding is rife. Misunderstanding is the norm. Misunderstanding is natural. Human.

Software won’t change that – in fact it might make it worse.

Back to Eno; the skill of understanding French (and teachers’ monetization of such) is set to go away – the judgment to understand someone else (in a café, in a meeting) is set to be the ability that will need teaching and learning and mastering in an era where all seven billion (soon, ten billion) of us can talk together.

In the frenzied debate about the software based displacement of human skill the more purple prose can only ever focus on the black and white of loss and gain; hardly ever on the gray of mutation.

Piggy – if he’s still teaching (if this piece ever finds its way to you Mr. Marsden, I hope you are well, and I hope you aware of my gratitude and respect) – probably doesn’t have a long career ahead (Ed. he’s probably already retired!) teaching le, la, nous, etc. to spotty nosed little bleeders. But I’d hazard a guess that there is a long, long career ahead for those that can teach the next generation that there’s nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding.

That will probably be beyond the grasp of software for some time come. That’s a job for the ages.

I'm In With the Linked-In Crowd

The $26bn acquisition of Linked-In by Microsoft last week is a bit of a digital Rorschach test. To some folks I’ve talked to it’s a visionary master stroke that opens up all sorts of new possibilities in “social selling” and cements the role of email in an increasingly Slacky world. To others, for whom Linked-In is still something of a mystery, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. And then to some it’s a colossal waste of money. $26bn! For what? A web-site where people put their resume and scratch your back in the hope that you’ll scratch theirs! Man, the sell-side bankers did an outstanding job!!! $26bn for a company on the brink of implosion! Take a bow, Frank Quattrone.

Personally, I see in the ink-splatter all sorts of upside for Microsoft. Consider this;

Linked-In is the de-facto corporate directory for business nowadays; talking to someone on the phone you don’t know? You’re probably looking at their Linked-In profile as you chat. Even if it’s someone in your own company. Listening to someone talk at a conference? You’re probably checking them out on Linked-In (and Twitter) as they blabber on. Before you head back to

  • Linked-In is becoming the de-facto thought leadership platform; why have your own website or blog nowadays? Go where the fish are and put your stuff up on Linked-In. Hey, look! You’re reading this on Linked-In!!!
  • Linked-in is the de-facto way of connecting with people you don’t know but would like to know; sure, you probably still meet folks at the golf club or the Rotary or the gym or the resort bar or the Opera but if you want to get connected with someone nowadays a direct call seems hopelessly crude and old-fashioned. And nobody answers their phone anyway if you call them.
  • Not having a presence on Linked-In marks you out as an eccentric or a dinosaur. Even if you’re not in the market for a new gig, don’t want to buy anything, or don’t want to sell something. And if you’re not in any one of those three categories then what are you doing at work all day?

In short, Linked-In is close to becoming a utility in the 21st century digital economy. When you’ve got $100bn parked in banks around the world collecting 0.5% interest spending some of it (even a quarter of it) to buy your way into the next form of business infrastructure seems Bellicheckian (i.e. a good play). (BTW: if you still don’t care for the deal, tell me, what would you do with all that money???!!!)

And in reality the $26bn isn’t buying today’s Linked-In; it’s buying what Linked-In will become. Three years ago, I wrote this piece outlining how HR processes would look in a world of Code Halos. Far be it from me to tell you “I told you so”, but I told you so.

Fast forward to mid-2016 and this is how HR, and selling, and working with other people is beginning to change and shift into an always-on, mobile, social, intelligent network based experience. Fast forward to 2020 and this type of experience will be ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Of course for Microsoft the ability to migrate the best elements of Office (no sniggering at the back of the room please) into this, not particularly brave, new world gives the Office franchise a post desktop future and sends a shot across lots of bows; the aforementioned Slack, the new BFFs at, and the folks down south with a Mountain View. Microsoft will integrate the tools we use to work with the utility we use to connect and collaborate, throw AI based analytics, recommendation engines and best next action platforms into the mix, stir in a little advertising, light the blue touch paper, stand back, and hope the resulting explosion produces commercial propulsion, not reputational disaster.

$26bn to have a shot at being relevant to people who’ve never ever heard of Clippy? Like.

Like also because it prompted me to go and play this again Really Like.

In a world of weak ties, not club ties, Linked-In is increasingly how the world works. Expect your Microsoft rep to start talking about social graphs and digital assistants and just in time social learning before the quarter’s out.

$26bn? Ok, hardly chump change. But not a chump move.

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Seven Jobs of the Future

One of the most frequent questions I get on my travels is “what should my kids study and/or do early in their career to give them the best shot at getting a great job that will sustain them throughout their life”?

Clearly this thought comes from a place of anxiety; understandable and appropriate anxiety. Anybody paying attention to the development of artificial intelligence, automation, and bot-based arbitrage knows that the functional capability of machine learning is growing exponentially, and that when the “bot cost” is cheaper than the “bod cost” (assuming the quality of the task execution is broadly comparable) many “bods” are going to be deemed surplus to requirements.

If you’re thinking about the future through the eyes of your children (as I am) trying to steer your kids into areas where they won’t be surplus to requirements is Parenting 101.

So here are seven emerging areas/jobs that are set to grow massively over the next few years and provide incredible opportunity for those with a science oran arts disposition. Remember the FLOWER is as importantmore importantthan the STEM.

Egaming – the egaming industry, still considered a curio by non-gamers, is set to be a $100bn market in the next few years, but is still in reality in its infancy. I’d say it’s where the movie industry was in 1935 or the music business was in 1960. Though you may feel that the hours Johnny’s spent shooting things up on Call of Duty have been a complete waste of time, I’d disagree. I think Johnny’s been learning the reflexes, language, social norms, and aesthetics of the new world. Taking those skills, that DNA, and commercializing them will serve him well. Maybe he’ll be the Colonel Tom Parker of egames; maybe he’ll be the Elvis. Maybe he’ll simply be the manager of the concessions stand at the local superdome when the egaming world championships come to town. Whatever, egaming is big and just getting bigger.

Show production–somewhat related but with lots of different applications, the whole concept of “show production” is quietly booming and set to explode even more. If, like me, you spend a lot of time on the road going to trade shows and conferences and industry events, you’ll have noticed that the “production values” of these events have increased very noticeably in the last few years. Whereas you used to find a jerry-rigged stage, a black curtain, and a slightly askew projection screen as the backdrop for the latest product launch or pronouncement from the CEO, now you have 300 foot, 180 degree wrap around HD screens, Hollywood quality videos, lighting and audio rigs from a Beyonce concert, and the vibe of a Vegas show. In short, the production values of movies and TV are finding their way into the day to day of business. Given the pervasiveness of the screen in our times, not being as glossy and polished as the presenters on CNN or Entertainment Tonight leaves the big wigs looking like Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, i.e. a relic from a previous age. There are tons of roles – technical, artistic, commercial – in democratizing this trend. There’s going to be lots of businesses that want show business.

IoT infrastructure– again, somewhat related, but something with much broader application, is the rise of the Internet of Things. Let’s assume that everything will – within a few years – be a thing. Building these things, deploying them, managing them, integrating them, upgrading them, optimizing them, fixing them is the huge wave ahead of us. The egaming world championships with its incredible production values – held in your town – is going to exist within an IoT environment; the stadium will be smart, the ticketing and entrance will be smart, the concessions will be smart, the live and virtual experiences will be smart, the ride to and from the stadium will be smart, the build-up and follow-up of the 3 hour game will be smart. Everything will be smart. Replicate this scenario out into every aspect of life and the possibilities are endless. Getting in on the ground floor would be smart.

Digital munitions– given that we’re so fractious a bunch (you are watching Euro 2016 aren’t you?!) I’d say it’s a pretty good bet that we’re going to have a big punch up soon. Left versus right, color v color, religion v religion, north v south, whatever, war runs through the history of man like the word Brighton in a stick of Brighton rock. The next big war though won’t be fought on the fields of northern Belgium- or the playing fields of Eton –but in the data centers of Sunnyvale and Canary Wharf and the Datong Road, Shanghai. The weapons of this war won’t be a Gribeauvai or a Sig Sauer MCX or an ICBM but a piece of code written in C++ delivered through a piece of glass running under the sea or through the ionosphere. If you don’t like the idea of working in the military, fine, call it homeland defense. In the future the idea of attacking or defending, home or abroad, will be quaint notions found only in the manuscripts of Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz. War will be total. War will be everywhere. War will be invisible. The business of dying (unfortunate as it may be) is set to be a growth industry.

Space– check out the job openings page at Blue Origin. Enough said. Put another way, follow the enthusiasms of the newest billionaire class a.k.a. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Their investments are your opportunity. These guys are the kings of the new frontier, underwriting the new Cristobal Colon’s of the new, new world. It’s going to be hell of a ride and you might die but if I was 21 that’s what I’d be doing. Space is big, and according to Einstein, only getting bigger.

Story telling – the oldest profession (well, not theoldest, but we won’t go there) is becoming the newest skill. Why? Thank TED. The 18 minutes Chris Anderson gives you forces you to tell a story as though you’re back in the cave or out on the high veldt or in the coffee shop on Fleet Street. TED has raised the bar for every type of corporate communication. In a world of ADD, and multi-tasking and second and third and fourth screens, and everybody communicating every second of every day through every channel and every form factor, being able to cut through the noise with a good story is fundamental. The truth is though, very few people can tell a good story. If you can’t add, and you can’t code, I reckon you should double down on learning the art of the yarn. The techies will thank you for it and might let you have some crumbs from their table.

Finishing schools–assuming that in a bot-full-future DNA-life-based-forms (that’s you and me mate) want to deal with other DNA-life-based-forms, I’d say giving “good meeting” is going to be a pretty important job requirement in the second machine age. The Lex Machinabot is probably going to do all the work when you go to see your $1,000 an hour lawyer so it will be important that the DNA based lawyer makes the meeting valuable, interesting, exciting, fun, and enjoyable. In the last few decades of HBR/McKinsey/Goldman Sachs orthodoxy these “soft” skills have gone out of the window in an environment of efficiency and ruthlessness. The three martini business lunch has mutated into the sandwich “al-desko”. The 19th hole doesn’t see the action it used to. Professional people’s interpersonal skills are – in my observation – much coarser and much poorer than they were when I started my working life. I think this is going to change and that “bed-side manners” are going to be important again. If you buy this argument there’s an opportunity to develop the curricula and infrastructure to teach professional people how to treat the staff (i.e. the bots) and the guests. Schools hardly do this nowadays; nor colleges, nor graduate level entry programs, nor professional associations. Sales training programs cover some of it, but as a thin veneer to help sales people close the transaction. To me the broader opportunity is to teach people to differentiate themselves from machines. Of course, this isn’t something bourgeois people have had to worry about ever before. But now they do. Not many people will be able to go to Montreuxto stay ahead of the bot; helping the folks around you do so is set to be an expanding niche; one that will probably get you onto quite a few Christmas card lists. That is if cards exist in the future.

The questions that parents (and non-parents) are asking are big ones; important ones; the right ones. In 1,500 words – or a few minutes response at the end of a presentation – it’s hard to do them justice. All of these seven areas are big and broad and deep and all could stand much deeper investigation. I’m not attempting to replicate or condense all of the literature that already exists about them. Something big is going on right now, due to the software nibbling away at the world. We all subsequently need to ask big questions. My answers may be puny but I hope they might be seeds that with your watering and TLC may flower – beautifully – for you and yours in the seasons to come