Genuine intelligence

Are we ready for the battle between interpreters and machines? It’s time to think about artificial intelligence.

Photo credits: Alex Knight / Pexels

Familiar friends

Somehow, stealthily, AI has entered our lives – largely without us noticing it.

Alexa, Cortana, Siri and Google are familiar names and trusted friends who help us with our shopping, research our ailments, recommend our excursions, and propose our entertainment. Getting lost in unfamiliar locales is a thing of the past, with GPS-enhanced maps that helpfully guide us along the best route to where we want to go.

And, of course, foreign tongues are no longer impenetrable barriers to communication. We have apps on our mobile phones, tablets and computers that can spit out a translated text in microseconds, from any language to any other.

Even more: AI-enhanced linguistic apps can use your mobile phone’s camera to live-translate texts – signposts, menus, noticeboards – and miraculously generate a somewhat sci-fi regenerated image, albeit with text that seems to shapeshift before our eyes as the AI changes its digital mind.

Voice recognition technology is also making gains, with AI developers offering live-interpreting apps. The ads show tourists able to fluently flirt with attractive locals, who are suitably wowed by their digital intermediaries.

We can scoff at the poor and mechanical translations that these machines present. There is an entire genre of clickbait and social media posts chuckling at unfortunate gaffes and unintended double-entendres from automated translations. There are double-translated lyrics from popular songs, with comedians spawning much mirth by translating song lyrics into another language, and then retranslating the translation into the source language.

But seriously…

All very entertaining, but for language professionals, perhaps not quite so funny.

The truth is that AI does help to break down linguistic barriers, and although the results are by no means as reliable as a human translator or interpreter, they do meet certain needs. In addition, by its very nature, AI learns and it is evident that machine-generated translations are improving.

For interpreters, the threat is not (yet) that AI technology will replace interpreters in meetings – indeed, at a tech conference in 2018 a developer of AI interpreting was embarrassed by revelations that their “automated” interpreting service was actually interpreted (behind the screens) by flesh-and-blood humans impersonating the machines. 

However, as AI gains ground, the reliance on professional human interpreters may well wane.

This may not be the time for a luddite backlash against AI, but rather to seek clever solutions to demonstrate the benefits and added value of true human professional interpreters.

At the AIIC PRIMS meeting in Lyon, on 24-26 January 2020, we will delve into the world of AI, what it means for conference interpreters, and how we can meet the challenge and adapt, intelligently.

Join the conversation

The AIIC PRIMS meeting in Lyon is from Friday 24 – Sunday 26 January. The first day will include a BarCamp (non-AIIC members welcome!).

Please note – the main event is for  AIIC members, candidates and pre-candidates only.

  • Explore the issues further with experts in the field, at a one-day conference on "Artificial Intelligence and the Interpreter" in London on 21 March, hosted by the AIIC UK & Ireland Region  and open to all. At the half-day debrief, on 22 March, AIIC members will consider how we, as an Association, can tackle the challenge.

Recommended citation format:
Private Market Sector Standing Committee,Communications officer. "Genuine intelligence". January 9, 2020. Accessed July 12, 2020. <>.