Will we eventually live with a digital alter ego?

At a recent event the event organiser had booked a kind of speaker that seems to be much in demand lately, namely a futurist. Obviously, while interpreting someone else’s message I am not free to let my own convictions and beliefs colour what the speaker says. However, I am allowed to have thoughts of my own about it as a human being and to put them to discussion if I consider it a worthwhile exercise.

This futurist dwelled a fair bit on the idea of digital twins, including in a very intimate sense – a personal twin of ourselves. It started out with the idea that such a personal digital twin could be examined by physicians who could get directly into that cloud version of the real person to see exactly what was wrong and how to fix it. So far, so really very good.

That personal digital twin could even be our proxy in mass drugs or vaccine trials, was one of the ideas mooted. Already I would be a little more circumspect. After all, it would be a fallacy to believe that nobody, but really nobody would want to get access to this version of us for anything other than our benefit or at least the common good.

Next came the idea that the personal digital twin could be made to do all the menial tasks we would normally have to deal with in order to ‘free us up to be more creative’. There were a number of arguments put forward in favour of this sort of idea. Forgive me if I don’t join the cheering crowds just yet. Let me explain my skepticism.

Firstly I believe that it is precisely while we are doing things we are unhappy or bored with that we are at the most creative in finding ways of making that task less tedious. Repetitive manual tasks  can also set our minds free to explore entirely different issues. I impose this on myself deliberately when knitting, an activity with a huge amount of repetition but massively creative because as I go along, I elaborate the designs of my knitted items. Quite often I also use that time to percolate thoughts on events, on things I did well and not so well at work or in my personal life and how to adjust, the type of self-reflection that seems sorely missing at times these days. One could argue that if my personal digital twin would do – say – my accounts for me, I would have even more time for reflection. Just that much less to reflect on, I would counter, as it is the way we confront the good, the bad and the ugly sides of daily life that gives rise to reflection and from that, growth.

But let me get to what I consider the gravest danger to human intelligence from AI on the example of language and thoughts. (Let me say upfront that when the Wall came down in my home country in 1989, among the first samples of Western literature that I devoured were the Dune tomes by Frank Herbert, and I am more than ever convinced that his Butlerian Jihad against the Thinking Machines is a piece of amazingly prescient fiction.) I also want to make it clear that I am not necessarily opposed to any of the developments I shall now describe per se.

I am old enough to have grown up without mobile phones and especially text messages. My generation remembers the first mobile phones that one had to type everything into, using the 12 keys of the keypad to cover the entire alphabet and punctuation marks, an often frustrating and always time-consuming pursuit. Still, text messages were a good idea, so along came some clever person and invented predictive letters to save us tapping one key up to three or four times just for one letter. 

The advent of smart phones with qwerty keyboards removed the need for letter prediction. The next evolutionary level was the autocorrect feature, which quite frankly is culpable of turning some perfectly correct words into something ‘it’ thought they should be, producing at times rather hilarious sentences that were just as annoying and embarrassing for the original human author who was not really to blame (other than for skimping on proof-reading before sending). 

Now we have predictive text à la Google which suggests phrases to complete sentences for us. At least for me at this point the alarm bells started ringing big time. It pretty much never has suggested a sentence that I would have written exactly that way myself, although admittedly once or twice I went with the suggestion before stopping to use the tool altogether. Somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that this ‘workload reduction’ tool was trying to coax me into using its words instead of my own. And I am sure at some point the tide would turn and I might even look to AI to finish my sentences for me because I got so used to it that I could no longer do it myself.

I believe we are already seeing consequences of this in the phenomenon of our shrinking vocabularies. More on this another time but it would stand to reason that machine learning teaches the algorithms to offer up the most frequently harvested phrases or terms, and the more often the suggestions are accepted by users, the more this reaffirms the initial machine learning results, making us humans lose variety and nuance in our language and conversation but also our thoughts (if we haven’t been convinced yet that thinking was actually one of those tedious tasks we should leave to our digital twin to begin with), and we lose control over our languages themselves.

I refuse to let my email software think for me. I am happy to learn but unless for very specific needs I may have, I will not let algorithms guide me in my choices. Mine is by no means the brightest of intellects, so I may be lowering myself to my own level, but more than smart I want to be me when I communicate with others. Machine translation and predictive text do not lend themselves to expressing authenticity and individuality.

I accept that there will be those who disagree to the point of being happy to be told what to think. I have in mind all those who had their choice in a number of elections and referendums made by one or the other iteration of Cambridge Analytica in recent years – without even realising that they had been gamed. Be that about Brexit*, Trump, Covid vaccines* or Putin’s version of Ukrainian history*.

But also those who are part of the Quiet Quitting movement, which is based on promoting mediocrity to the cleverest way of gaming the system, albeit for a valid reason: good work deserves good pay, and great work deserves even more; while many in our profession have always been doing our best for less than what our work is worth simply because we love it so much and are happy to subsist materially rather than prosper. Not to mention nurses and teachers and all those whose work keeps our societies running. It would be worth its own article to argue which side is getting it right. Spoiler alert: if you appreciate your work more than the client or employer who needs you to do it, surely there is something wrong.

My hunch is that most people would quite like to have a digital twin they could dump all the inconvenient tasks on, including thinking. While it is interesting, thinking takes effort, which makes it a kind of work. But it is work that challenges us to be creative, it is experience gained by doing that makes us want to change things and gives us the knowledge needed to effect change. For me this whole argument sounds much more like the encouragement of intellectual laziness and worse, an implicit invitation to being remote-controlled by powers that may not necessarily want to make our lives easier to the point of making them literally pointless but whose intentions might be even more sinister than that.

* My links all lead to fact-checks. I am not going to spread information I consider to be false.

What is behind the fake news agenda?

In view of the current deplorable events in Ukraine, I had a few thoughts on the issue of fake news that I would like to share.

I remember vividly how during the Brexit referendum campaign the pro-EU twitter ‘echo chamber’ was gobsmacked on a daily basis by outrageous and obviously untrue claims made by the two pro-Brexit campaigns (Vote Leave and Leave.eu) alike, along with some of the pro-Brexit pundits like Nigel Farage on any media that would let him talk, especially RT which even offered him a job.

We simply couldn’t get our heads around the audacity of those blatant lies, like the one that Turkey was going to join the EU with the implication that all 76* million inhabitants would descend on the UK under EU Freedom of Movement rights. When in reality, it was the UK within the EU that was openly supporting the accession of Turkey and even after Brexit, in my opinion in order to increase the EU internal market by exactly those same 76* million, from which UK businesses would benefit.

What was even more dumbfounding, though, was the massive acceptance of these lies which were being shared on Twitter (among other social media channels) pretty much unchallenged by anyone other than by those who ended up being scorned as ‘remoaners’ while official news outlets, notably the BBC, were conspicuously silent on this subversive ‘alternative news’ phenomenon.

If this first push to sow doubt among people was successful in allowing the pro-Brexit campaign to win the referendum, to all intents and purposes to their own surprise, we then saw the next phase of the process of alienating citizens from legitimate news sources with President Donald Trump’s crusade against any mainstream media outlet critical of him or his policies by accusing them of purveying fake news when he himself was spreading fake news as a matter of course. Fact-checkers put the number of ‘untruths’ (politically correct moniker for the more blunt word ‘lie’) at an astonishing 30,573 over his four years in power, averaging 21 per day. We now had serious journalism being accused of producing fake news while the accusers were spreading fake news themselves prolifically and quite openly.

These days we see the same playbook being used by Russia against Ukraine and the rest of the world, and as I couldn’t help noticing when reading comments on posts about the war on LinkedIn, quite successfully so. To me, reading many of these comments feels like the Brexit referendum campaign all over again.

I am still not sure what the end game is supposed to be because for this strategy of destabilising societies by sowing mistrust to work, it is necessary to have enough people who believe the real fake news over the fake fake (i.e. ‘real’) news. It also, in my opinion arrogantly so, presumes that those believers are not at some stage lured away by yet another player who – for better or worse – manages to use the gullibility that fake news believers have been trained in to their own end.

I will certainly keep an eye on developments in a professional capacity as in a world where anyone can seemingly state anything under the cover of ‘truth’, as a professional who assists multilingual communication I may be forced at some point to choose who I am prepared to lend my voice to. But I will also keep an eye on myself because naturally, I cannot be absolutely sure that I get all my information from trustworthy sources and am not becoming a victim of confirmation bias myself in the attempt to stay close to the truth.

* As claimed on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign poster. The official figure for 2015, which this claim would sensibly be based on, is 78.5 million.

Did you know?

When WFH also extends to multilingual meetings, participants in those events will confirm that the experience is miles from the one at an on-site event.

No fancy coffee machine outside the meeting room, no appetising buffets during the breaks, no networking over dinner, no friendly ladies or gents handing out receivers for those who require interpretation. Everyone needs to be their own equipment provider right now.

Interpreters, too, have had to invest in their own professional gear to be able to shift their work to RSI platforms – although many have even gone above and beyond the exacting entry requirements to optimise their workflow which involves lots more task than before, and to ensure the best possible experience for their listeners, as well.

The problem – and trust me, it is turning into a serious one, leaving many interpreters with hearing damage that was rare under controlled conditions on site and that could end their professional careers – is that platforms do not actually produce the sound they transmit as loss-free as possible, it is everyone who unmutes their microphone. While the listeners of the interpretation are largely getting a sound that is equivalent to that at the international meetings of yore, floor listeners (among them interpreters) in turn are all too often not getting the same level of service, especially in settings without technicians at hand who can assess what simply isn’t good enough and intervene.

Let me focus on one issue today that is quite easily fixed but shockingly frequently ignored: integrated microphones. No professional RSI platform would allow an interpreter to use one. So how come this is exactly the kind of sound quality that listeners, including interpreters, get to hear from the floor?

Everyone knows by now that interpreters are some kind of magicians who can hear, understand, analyse, put into another language, rephrase, and speak at the same time – but only that which they can hear. And as they are not just listening but also doing all these other things, their sound needs to be extra clean. Makes sense, right? In fact, so much so that there is even an ISO standard for the sound quality for distance interpreting.

Built-in microphones don’t deliver ISO20108-compliant sound. They are also usually so well hidden that most speakers who use them unfortunately seem to have no idea how to address them. Most don’t even notice when they hit them, potentially hurting the ears of anyone unfortunate enough to be listening to them (which is ironic, seeing as anyone who takes the floor does so for others to hear them).

Hand on heart, do YOU know where the microphone on your device is? Don’t worry if you don’t, I had to look it up myself – not for me (I already have a professional USB mic, remember?) but to illustrate that finding integrated microphones can be like an Easter egg hunt. I started with one of my own devices, the MacBookPro 15 inch 2018. 👉

How about others? Let’s take a Dell. 👇

I guess you can see now that none of them are truly ideal presentation microphones, no matter the claims of ‘professional sound’ by the manufacturers. None of them directly face the speaker nor have a special recording pattern to exclude noise from elsewhere in the room (which interpreters’ microphones must have), so all of them are at least as good if not better at picking up all kinds of other noises near the microphone – like clicking pens, typing, ringing or vibrating phones, touchpad clicks, and coffee cup clanging on saucers – than a voice half a meter away and around a corner – and trust me, they do! Not to mention one of my pet-peeves: paper copies of presentations placed on top of the mic which manages to rustle horribly AND block the speaker’s voice at the same time. 🏆

So when giving professional presentations online, why not simply do it with equipment that does them justice? And even if you don’t believe good sound helps get your message across, it might still be a good idea to get to know the equipment you have and use it properly.

Your listeners will thank you. 🙏

CPD has never been this much fun!

There was a time when I thought I’d been there, done that, and had the t-shirt (or event badge) to prove it.

And then COVID19 happened and turned all our professional lives upside down. Suddenly, when asked forcefully by our respective national guidance to work from home, I found myself much more in touch with colleagues than in the preceding two and a bit decades. I also realised that I needed to learn. Then that I had useful information to share, too.

One of the first ‘resources’ for interpreting insight and wisdom I had begun to follow even somewhat before is Techforword.com. Now I am regularly checking what they have to offer.

Right now they are putting on their Innovation in Interpreting event that I would recommend should be visited by online event hosts (it’s free) just to see how to put on a sleek virtual show! Who else if not the tech-savviest interpreters around?

It is also full of useful information for interpreters wanting to know more about how to use technology in their permanent quest to improve their work.

And it is, like other such events, a great way for us interpreters to network, to break out of our local or national bubbles and become a truly global profession, learning and developing our skills, our work environments, and the ways we can provide our services to more and more clients, together.

Bentley Infrastructure Project Awards 2013

I had the pleasure of getting an assignment at this highly interesting event.

It was very well organised, with a speakers’ room with refreshments that I was asked to show up in for a briefing on the day before. Except it didn’t take place due to adverse weather having put paid to the travel plans of the German finalist (number 3 on the list) I was assigned to. So one has to improvise, which I did by grabbing last year’s finalists’ catalogue on the way out to get a feel for the kind of submissions.

The usual organisational stress of such large events made sure that I received the slide deck for the presentation at 1:50am on the day, by which time I was fast asleep, compulsory for a job that requires maximum concentration because every word matters.

On the day I was needed for the Q&A session after the presentation, and this is where we came across ‘root mean square error‘ and ‘Ausgleichungsrechnung’, or ‘curve-fitting‘, as it is known in English, at which point I would love to talk about how different language communities name things… and about curve-balls.