Since 2016, there has been a sharp increase in open source machine translation projects based on neural networks or Neural Machine Translation (NMT) led by companies such as Google, Facebook and SYSTRAN. Why have machine translation and NMT-related innovations become the new Holy Grail for tech companies? And does the future of these companies rely on machine translation?
Never before has a technological field undergone so much disruption in such a short time. Invented in the 1960s, machine translation was first based on grammatical and syntactical rules until 2007. Statistical modelling (known as statistical translation or SMT), which matured particularly due to the abundance of data, then took over. Although statistical translation was introduced by IBM in the 1990s, it took 15 years for the technology to reach mass adoption. Neural Machine Translation on the other hand, only took two years to be widely adopted by the industry after being introduced by academia in 2014, showing the acceleration of innovation in this field. Machine translation is currently experiencing a golden age of technology.
From Big Data to Good Data
Not only have these successive waves of technology differed in their pace of development and adoption, but their key strengths or “core values” have also changed. In rule-based translation, value was brought by code and accumulated linguistic resources. For statistical models, the amount of data was paramount. The more data you had, the better the quality of your translation and your evaluation via the BLEU score (Bilingual Evaluation Understudy, the most widely used algorithm measuring machine translation quality). Now, the move to Machine translation based on neural networks and Deep Learning is well underway and has brought about major changes. The engines are trained to learn language as a child does, progressing step by step. The challenge is not only to process exponential data (Big Data) but more importantly to feed the engines the most qualitative data possible. Hence the interest in “Good data.”