Localization Business School: Will localizers be automated away?

With increased automation, software reaches decision-making capabilities previously thought to be confined to the human brain. No profession is exempt, except when rendering these services requires a capacity for intimacy, compassion and emotional response.

Translation, for example, is one of the domains where developers have tried since 1951 to render text from one language to another, so far with limited acceptable results.

67 years later, we are at the point where translation of technical documents can be automated fairly well. On the other hand, we still get oddly surreal “translations.” Some users, for example, once typed random characters into Google Translate and the Thai translation read: “There are six sparks in the sky, each with six spheres. The sphere of the sphere is the sphere of the sphere.”

We will find such examples for a long time. My prediction is that machine translation will not pass the Turing Test in my lifetime. Notwithstanding the fact that some human translations are not distinguishable from that of a machine, a machine will not have the ability to translate highbrow content equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, a human translation before I die.

But does it have to do this in order to kill your job? The answer is: yes.

Joseph Weizenbaum made this case in 1966 with his program ELIZA, an early natural language processing computer program that gave users an illusion of an actual conversation. This was one of the world’s first chatbots. ELIZA’s most famous script, DOCTOR, was so effective that individuals initially thought it had human-like feelings. In fact, it only used rules within the script to respond with non-directional questions to user inputs, such as:

ELIZA: Let’s talk

User: How are you?

ELIZA: Why are you interested in how I am?

Many users believed that the program could aid doctors in working with patients. Some even feared psychologists could go out of business.

ELIZA’s weakness was that it was unable to contextualize anything. Coaches and psychologists are not just looking at words sentence by sentence. They need to interpret a person’s body language, how a person relates to past events and trauma and meets basic needs. Great life coaches identify limiting beliefs and see unproductive patterns in their clients’ behaviors. They understand their clients’ world and emotions first, show different ways of dealing with life challenges, connect behavioral change to something higher than their client’s self to make it last, and show them one small change that helps them make a breakthrough each time they meet.

The death of the file pusher

As localizers, we can learn from that. For one, machine translation will be of little use for content that requires emotional and cultural context. At least for quite a while. Second, while many tools can fully automate most transactional tasks of a localization project, they cannot respond to a client’s need for relevance, belonging, personal growth and giving back.

Yes, file management, email writing, reporting, quoting, scheduling and many other tasks can now be fully automated. And if you are more of a file pusher than a neuroscience psychologist to your client, your job will be axed sooner or later.

Localization professionals who can apply soft skills will always be in demand: Problem solving, critical thinking, interpersonal interaction, consumer preference analysis, communication, team building, leadership, and social and cultural awareness are most needed in the future.

People and relationships

Being a pioneer in automating project management (I have done this for 20 years now), I have never found that technical shortcomings of translation automation are the problem. People are.

I spend most of my time coaching managers that automation is not just about processes and hand-offs, but also about people and relationships. Automation in localization fails because the pain of changing is stronger than the pain of working the way things currently are. Coupled with the real possibility of automation killing jobs, there is often little incentive for teams to change.

There are two basic forces that determine our behavior: 1. the need to avoid pain, and 2. the desire to gain pleasure. The need to avoid pain is always the stronger one. That’s why well-meaning managers experience push-back from their stakeholders when they introduce new ideas with the best of intentions of building a better future. The big two questions in everybody else’s head is: “Will I be good enough? And if I fail, will I still be loved or respected?” Their own futures may seem to be in jeopardy.

Empower, don’t limit 

Successful localizers break unhealthy responses to inevitable automation by turning their limiting believes into empowering ones. Instead of telling themselves that process automation will take away their jobs, they create empowering statements, such as: “automation allows me to eliminate all the clutter and repetitive work — and I have all the knowledge, experience, relationship skills and talents to now deliver more value to my clients than ever before.”

And then they train themselves in using their natural capacity for problem solving, adaptation, and resilience and cross-disciplinary solution building.

How much time do we have? It took six decades for laborers to resettle and start to win higher wages once factory automation took hold in the 19th century’s Industrial Age. How long localizers have in the age of automation is not clear, but the transition has started. Estimates are that in the next 15 years, 38% of American jobs will be lost to robotics and artificial intelligence; Germany will lose 35%, Japan 21% and the UK 30%.

According to consulting firm PwC, administrative and support services are more at risk than human health services, social work and education. My case in point: If you spend much time pushing files or run a translation sweat shop you are already being automated away. You need to act now. As Stephen Hawking has said,
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