Competing views of AI and language learning

I've read two books recently that have radically different views on AI, computing, human application, etc. Would be interested in the Duo Community's take on both with respect to language learning.

The first, from a book called Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo, talks about AI, the networking of computing and the acceleration of what computers can do. Think the quicker than expected progress of automated cars and Google/Amazon's predictive computing capabilities. His idea is that as more computing/data is available, the less need there is for human intervention. He also thinks the trend will work towards faster innovation rather than hitting any sort of plateau, unlike anything we can imagine at the moment.

One of his points is that learning a second language will become LESS vital, because real-time translation will render the ability more or less useless. FWIW, taxis in Japan are adding this feature as early as next year, while a friend recently showed me an app that allows you to use your phone to translate text (such as a menu) to another language right on the screen. In a sense, there is no doubt the tech is coming.

The second, from a book call Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone, talks about the importance of still "knowing" things, despite the easy access to tons of data via Google/internet/etc. His point is that it is still the ability to connect facts that makes for human interaction and ingenuity, and that people that "know more" still do much better in life. He relies on a ton of surveys to show that general knowledge correlates to higher income, etc. I think his take on language learning would run counter to Ramo's view, given subtle meanings and connotation, idiomatic usage, etc. Certain things in one language are cultural that simply defy translation when it doesn't exist in the other culture. Granted, this is just my speculation applying Poundstone's general idea to language learning, but I think it follows pretty logically.

So I'm interested in everyone's thoughts. Are we all participating in an activity that will disappear completely as machine learning replaces the need? Or will actually learning a second/third/tenth language always a fundamental usefulness?

Just curious ...

February 27, 2017


Studies have shown that learning new languages create new connections in the brain. These connections enable you to learn a new skill easier. So if you learned french, it will be easier for you to learn a new instrument, like the flute.

February 27, 2017

Until the scientists come up with a 'universal translator' device (like you see in science fiction movies), learning how to read, write and speak another language will be a useful skill if you plan to interact with people who can only use that language.

An American chef I know advises would-be cooks that the most important skill they should learn is to speak Spanish, because that is the language that most of their staff will speak.

Also, you will probably learn a lot more about your native language as you learn how other languages work and how to go from your native language to that other language or vice versa. And then there's the cultural aspects of knowing another language.

February 27, 2017

I think knowing more then one language would be useful! Because what if the internet crashed? Then you wouldn't be able to do ANYTHING!

February 27, 2017

Are we all participating in an activity that will disappear completely as machine learning replaces the need? Or will actually learning a second/third/tenth language always a fundamental usefulness?

Things are certainly moving fast forward. The appearance of a BabelFish device is maybe not that far away in the future.

February 27, 2017

Unfortunately, with AI, they will realize that humans are no longer needed. However, the human mind is connected to the infinite while AI will be limited to present data and present knowledge. We can create new languages to outsmart AI.

February 27, 2017

Personally I think technology, however smart, is a tool like any other tool. There seems to be a tendency in a lot of discussions about A1 to denigrate human abilities without considering the fact that we are born human and need to live our lives as humans not machines. So by all means use a Babelfish where it's useful, but DO extend your own poor biological brain by using it for the purpose for which it's evolved, which seems to include language learning in the case of our species.

February 27, 2017

I think we may be able to draw some analogies to what recorded music did for live performance over the last hundred or so years. There are a lot fewer live bands, and nobody takes piano lessons to entertain their family or guests. But people still play in bands, hire bands, jam together, or play alone, because it is fun and fulfilling in its own right. Seems like more sophisticated realtime computer translation may replace certain mid-level commercial requirements, but high-level events, international diplomacy, etc., will probably always prefer expert humans.

At the other end, there will probably always be people who just prefer to do it the old fashioned way, or get a kick out of speaking different languages, or applying their own interpretation of their favorite songs. Catching idiomatic expressions is one thing, but I am very curious to see how AI eventually learns to interpret subtlety, nuance, irony, poetic or literary devices, and translate that in parallel to other languages.

Finally, languages change and evolve as people use them - could ubiquitous AI translation affect its own change onto our languages? Or will they be the final arbiters of what new words or expressions become standardized? Will all languages eventually merge into one global language? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

February 28, 2017

I think at some point AI will achieve the capacity to translate virtually (no pun intended :)) any language to a target language - probably sooner than later. This will most likely be sufficient for the vast majority of the human population, who simply wish to gain or transmit information. But I think learning a language; becoming fluent in a language, offers much more. A language encompasses a way of thinking about the world and an insight into the culture that created the language. To me, this is worth much more than the simple transmission of information, and well worth the time to pursue.

March 1, 2017
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