Every day, millions of people start the day by posting a greeting on social media. None of them expect to be arrested for their friendly morning ritual.
But that’s exactly what happened to a Palestinian construction worker in 2017, when the caption “يصبحهم” (“good morning”) on his Facebook selfie was auto-translated as “attack them.”
A human Arabic speaker would have immediately recognized “يصبحهم” as an informal way to say “good morning”. Not so AI. Machines are notoriously bad at dealing with variation, a key characteristic of all human languages.
With recent advances in automated translation, the belief is taking hold that humans, particularly English speakers, no longer need to learn other languages. Why bother with the effort when Google Translate and a host of other apps can do it for us?
In fact, some Anglophone universities are making precisely this argument to dismantle their language programs.
Unfortunately, language technologies are nowhere near being able to replace human language skills and will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future because machine language learning and human language learning differ in fundamental ways.