Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ray Kurzweil Predicts the Arrival of Human-Level Computer Translation By 2029

When people stop believing in God, they don't believe
in nothing -- they believe in anything.
—G.K. Chesterton

I read this interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil about translation last week. It contained the following statement: “According to Kurzweil, machines will reach human levels of translation quality by the year 2029.”

I confess I burst out laughing. Not at the prediction itself. I guess computers might be able to do that by then. What made me laugh is the inane precision of the date.


Really, Ray? 2029? Because that sounds like a very, very precise date. I mean, it’s not 2030, or 2040, or 2020. It’s not a nice round number like those. No, it’s very, very, very exact. I mean, it’s not 2028. Not 2030. Not even 2031. No, no, no: it’s 2029. Right on the button.

The question is: what is the exact nature of the calculations that led you to 2029?

That is, unless you found the year 2029 encrusted in your ass and you pulled it out of there. A skeptic might say that, you know.

I read up on Kurzweil and it turns out that he is a bona fide inventor and that he is actually taken seriously by a lot of people. He is a pioneer in optical character recognition, so when your pdf is scanned and you get a dog’s breakfast, this is the guy you should email your complaints to. Of course, the fact that you excel in one area of human endeavor doesn’t mean your opinions are necessarily valid in another field. I would choose Barcelona’s Lionel Messi every time for my five-a-side, but I would hesitate to let him take care of my taxes. That is the case even in science. Linus Pauling was a Nobel Prize winner for achieving major advances in chemistry. But when he hit middle age he began theorizing about the impact of vitamins on health. None of his ideas about vitamins has apparently proven to be scientifically valid. Of course, the Nobel tag on the cover of his vitamin books is very impressive, but if you want a science that is even more pathetic than economics, you should look into nutritionism.

Anyhow, to return to Kurzweil. He is a jack of all trades. He is an inventor. And also a life-extension guru. Geez, he founded a hedge fund using artificial intelligence to trade stocks. (Funny, though, there are no mentions of the hedge fund post-2008. Hmmmm, what could have happened to it? I can’t be sure, but I have my suspicions…)

But above all, Ray is a prophet of the Singularity.

And you know what the Singularity is? Well, it’s the day when we are able to scan our brains, make a perfect digital replica of it and (I swear to God I’m not making this up) upload our minds to a computer to live forever. Sounds really reasonable, right? (And this is the guy several hedge fund managers entrust with millions of dollars. Now it starts to make more sense why the entire financial industry nearly flushed itself down the subprime drain.) At this point, you feel like nervously asking Ray to tell you more about the Singularity as you search with your eyes where the nearest exit is... before he offers you some funny-tasting Kool-Aid.

Apparently Ray really, really doesn’t want to die. Of course, none of us do, except for the suicidal minority. But Ray is so adamant about not dying that he is willing to waste a significant portion of the finite time we have on Earth ensuring that he lives forever.

My lazy prediction: both Ray and I are going to die. Except I’ll be much less surprised than him when that day comes.

Frankly, before computer scientists work out how to meld my brain with my $700 laptop, I would appreciate it if first they tried to improve the interface between my PC and my wireless printer. Because that is another major technological challenge that remains unsolved.

I close with this exchange, from one of my favorite movies of all time, between Criswell and Ed Wood. The psychic predicts on television that humans will colonize Mars by the year 20291970. Eddie, wide-eyed and terminally stupid, asks him how he knew that:
Ed Wood: Hey Cris, how'd you know we'd be living on Mars by 1970? How'd you know it wouldn't be 1975, or even 1980?
Criswell: I guessed.
Ed: Really?
Criswell: I made it up. It's horse shit. Eddie, there's no such thing as a psychic. People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.
Ed: It's that easy?
Criswell: Eddie, we're in show biz. It's all about razzle-dazzle, appearances. If you look good and you talk well, people will swallow anything.

And I leave you with a clip of the real-life Criswell, on whom Tim Burton based his character. Pretty convincing and earnest, don’t you think?

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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