Translation Technology: Replacement or Enhancement?

At one point in The Imitation Game (again), Commander Denniston enters Alan Turing’s workshop, shuts down Christopher the code-breaking machine, then orders Turing off the premises. The machine is not quite complete. Turing, terrified, protects it with his own body, and insists that the machine will work. He and his work is saved by fellow code-breakers who stand up for him. Then Denniston gives him one more month to make Christopher work.

Aspiring teams of machine translation research weren’t so lucky after, in 1964, the US government thought to set up a committee to look into their progress. The committee, pompously named the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee, or ALPAC in short, was active for two years, engaged in discussions, heard testimonies – and, in 1966, came up with a report that many thought was the nemesis of machine translation research.

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Language in Numbers

Everything can be expressed in numbers, said Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel when they were thinking up methods to come to mathematical statements and proofs – about mathematical statements and proofs. Turing sought a systematic approach to tackle Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem, while Gödel used his eponymous numbering system to prove his own incompleteness theorems. Which happened to constitute a negative proof to the same Eintscheidungsproblem. You can go back one post if you are interested in the particulars.

In that previous post, I have already attributed the ascent of the universal automata – computers – to this approach. Now I will show how this same approach enabled the mathematical treatment of language, giving birth to the processing of human languages on computers.

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Disruption and Progress

In this blog, I promised stories about the history of language technology, and the promise still stands: stories will come. But the things that happen in science and technology do not happen in themselves or by themselves, and when you tell stories about events in technology, it helps if you are conscious about how and why they happen.

Humankind created amazing things since the dawn of history, which brought about unprecedented wealth and an almost twofold increase in the life expectancy of those lucky enough to be born in the so-called “developed” world. This makes us talk about the development – or progress – of science and technology, and the improvement of the quality of life along with it. Continue reading