Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Machine translation

Robin Murgatroyd sat at a heavy wooden desk in her supervisor's office.  Although the university budget seemed to be thinner than filo pastry, his office featured furniture that wouldn't look out of place in a French château, tapestries hanging on three walls, a tea service that looked to be solid silver, and a range of the latest Apple products dotted around here and there.  Although Robin largely disapproved of Apple as a company, she had to admit that no matter how new the gadget, it always seemed to fit in with even fifteenth century furniture.  She despised it very slightly more for that success.
Her supervisor sighed, and laid down the eighteen typed pages he'd been looking through.  Robin was hoping that they would be the third chapter of her thesis.  They were slightly dog-eared, and it looked as though he'd spent some time with them.
"This isn't working, Roberta," he said.  He often got her name wrong, and she suspected he did it deliberately.  "Or rather, I'm enjoying reading about this, but it's quite clear that we're not going to see results from this."
"Robin, Sir," she replied quietly.  "Can we not view this as a negative result, and go somewhere from that?"
"Perhaps," he said, smiling.  His false teeth were slipping again, and the smile had the gap in the wrong place, far too close to his upper lip, making it appear as though his mouth were upside down.  "What were you thinking of?"
They were both silent, Robin trying to think of some way to use a negative result, and her supervisor waiting for her response.  She hoped he wasn't wondering why she was his student.
"It's not as bad as all that," she said finally, her heart sinking, knowing that she sounded pathetic.
"I think it is," said her supervisor.  "Look, you gave it this news story from Le Figaro about European grain subsidies, and two thirds of the way through it suddenly starts translating the word for grain as 'pernicious anaemia'.  Now don't misunderstand me, I thought it was absolutely hilarious, but it's no use as an academic tool if it makes mistakes like that.  Do you have any idea why it did that?"
"Yes!"  Robin felt as though someone had thrown her a rope while she was learning how to drown.  She seized it eagerly.  "Yes, I know exactly what happened.  The program checks its knowledge base every fifteen seconds against the internet.  It checks the nouns in the current sentence that it's translating, and selected key words around it, looking for translations from other sources to compare its own decisions with."
"Right," said her supervisor.  "We did that a year ago."
"Yes.  Well, someone poisoned the well.  All of a sudden, about half-way through the translation process, someone dumped two hundred false translations onto the web.  The program worked perfectly, but it was sabotaged."
"Can you prove it was working perfectly until that point?"
"Well... I.  I think so."
"Excellent.  Let's get that proof then, and maybe we can salvage these pages!"
Her supervisor watched her gather the papers and leave, and he poured himself a cup of tea from the silver tea-service.  A knock at the door indicated the arrival of his other student, and so he called him to enter.
"Stephen" said the supervisor to the lanky young man with the greasy hair.  "How is your project to defeat automatic machine translation tools progressing then?"

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