The Humane AI Pin is lost in translation

Of all the things promised by the Humane AI Pin, I was most intrigued by the translation. In one demo, a man speaks to Humane co-founder Imran Chaudhri in Spanish. The AI ​​Pin automatically translates it into English. Chaudhri responds in English. Once again, the AI ​​Pin translates his words into Spanish. There are noticeable pauses during the AI ​​processing, but it’s a powerful concept. Unlike Google Translate, there was solid eye contact between the two people. The AI’s voice sounded more natural and less robotic. And above all, there were no screens. The language barrier was still there, but it was much more permeable.

That’s not what happened when I tried it myself.

I spoke a few simple sentences in Japanese and Korean. Instead of translating, the Pin AI spat gibberish at me. I asked my colleague David Pierce, who reviewed the damn thing, if I was doing something wrong. I wasn’t. It just didn’t work.

The whole experience was funny. It felt like vindication of the blood, sweat, and tears I had shed over two decades of studying foreign languages. But when I rewatched the Humane translation demo, my heart broke. I found myself wishing I had something like this when my parents were dying.

Living in an immigrant, multilingual family will open your eyes to all the ways humans can misunderstand each other. My story is not unique, but I grew up unable to communicate in my family’s “default language.” I was forbidden to speak Korean when I was a child. My parents were fluent in spoken and written English, but their accent often left them feeling unwelcome in America. They didn’t want that for me and so I grew up with perfect English and no accent. I could understand Korean and, being a little kid, I could speak some of it. But eventually, I lost that ability.

I became the Chewbacca family. My family spoke to me in Korean, I responded in English – and vice versa. Later, I started learning Japanese because that was what public school offered and my grandparents were fluent. Eventually, my family became proficient in English, Korean, and Japanese.

This arrangement was far from ideal but workable. Until both my parents were diagnosed with incurable degenerative neurological diseases. My father suffered from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. My mother suffered from bulbar amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Their English, the language they studied for decades, has evaporated.

This made things twice as complicated. I shared childcare duties with non-English speaking parents. Doctor visits – here as in Korea – had to be bilingual, which often meant appointments were longer, more stressful, more expensive and full of misunderstandings. Often I would like to communicate with my mother-in-law or aunt, both to coordinate care and to vent about things only we can understand. None of us could get beyond “I’m sad,” “I’m coming Monday, you’re leaving Tuesday,” or “I’m sorry.” We fought alone, together.

If Humane AI Pin’s translation features worked like the demo, how much heartache and loneliness could have been saved? Would our burden have been a little lighter? I haven’t stopped reliving these fantasies in my head ever since I watched the demo again. And I know that, for the foreseeable future, this will remain a fantasy.

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Better versions of Humane’s translation technology already exist. Google Translate requires screens, but it is a widely known tool that can serve as a digital interpreter. Despite this, Google Translate still has difficulty keeping up with all the linguistic developments. He now knows that “ㅋㅋ” is how Koreans text lol, but he’s completely wrong with the Japanese idiom tsutsumotase. What you get is a direct but incorrect translation of the characters, along with a rough definition. (The word refers to a specific type of badger game in which a man and a woman team up to financially extort another man.) Not to mention, English may be the lingua franca that unites technology, but some Languages ​​are easier to translate than others. It could very well be that Humane opted for demos in Spanish and French because they are much more closely related to English. Maybe he just didn’t have the same resources to actually develop all the languages ​​of the world – and the countless permutations this would entail.

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But these are the finer details of mastery and fluency. It takes much less to “survive” in another language. This is where Google Translate excels. This is handy when you’re traveling and need basic help, like directions or ordering food. But life is lived in more complicated moments than simple transactions with strangers. When I decided to remove my mother’s oxygen mask – the only machine keeping her alive – I used my shitty pidgin to tell my family it was time to say goodbye. I could never get Google Translate out for that. We all cried when my mother passed away peacefully in her living room. My limited Korean simply meant I couldn’t enjoy communal comforts. Would I really have pressed a pin in such a difficult moment to understand What My aunt was crying when I found out why?

Translation is an art, and art is something AI often gets wrong

Translation is an art, and art is something that AI often gets wrong. It’s not enough to spit out a direct meaning. For high-context languages ​​like Japanese and Korean, you also need to be able to translate what isn’t said (like tone and relationships between speakers) to truly understand what’s being conveyed. If a Korean asks your age, he is not being rude. It literally determines how they should speak to you. In Japanese, the word daijoubu can mean “It’s okay”, “Are you okay?” » “I’m fine”, “Yes”, “No, thank you”, “Everything will be fine” and “Don’t worry” depending on how it’s said. (See: This Rice Ball Explains It.) It’s confusing enough for humans to properly understand: How are AI translation gadgets trained by imperfect humans supposed to do it?

Even so, I can’t help but yearn for the future Humane demo. I can study Japanese and Korean for the rest of my life – and I will – but there will always be gaps. I have countless memories of times when I forgot how to speak my second and third languages. Times when I was in physical pain, when I was nervous, or when I had to do math. (I guarantee you, everyone does math in their native language.) In times like these, it would be nice to have an easy, transparent way to ask for help. And be understood.

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