Perspectives

The New Digital Divide: Language is the Impediment to Information Access

Within both technologically  developed  and  developing  nations,  physical,  social  and  economic structures  enforce  differential  access  to  information.  Whether in  urban  or  rural  communities, access  to  communication  technology  such  as  the  Internet  can  be  highly  limited.  Further, automated   translation   tools   continue   to   struggle   with   low-resource   language   pairs   and morphologically rich languages—those with  lots  of  conjugations  and  declensions,  like  German and  Arabic.  Certain nations are  therefore  less  integrated  into  global  markets  and  cultural exchange.  Particular  limitations  in  access  arise  from  the  confluence  of  language  barrier  and Internet infrastructure. These block access to published research and general knowledge.

Language  barriers  aren’t  going  away.  English  maintains  a  hegemony  over  both  the Internet and scientific writing, and regional languages remain firmly entrenched. Since attempts at  “universal  languages”  like  Esperanto  and  Interlingua  have  fallen  flat,  the  next  plausible method for facilitating seamless cross-language communication is a technological version of the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide: instant text and voice translation by computer.

Machine  translation  (MT)  uses  machine  learning,  relying  on  oodles  of  parallel  text (“bitext”).  When  there  is  no  economic,  legal,  or  national  security  incentive  to  produce  massive parallel corpora (like how the EU publishes in all member languages), translation quality suffers. Speakers  of  languages  without  these  incentives  are  therefore  disadvantaged. As  an  example, Google and Microsoft’s new, “scarily accurate” neural-network translation models are each only available for translating between eleven languages of the thousands recognized worldwide.

Internet  access  is  also  variable,  both  across  and  within  national  lines.  Still,  with  cell phones  achieving  95%  global  penetration  according  to  SSI,  the  binary  question  of  access  is outmoded.  The  new  glaring  question  is  bandwidth:  Certain  access  methods  limit  available content.  Connecting  through  a  56  kbit/s  dialup  connection  doesn’t  allow  for  streaming  video; however, it represents more than 2.2 million American subscribers.

The  social  consequence  of  this  diminished  information  access  is  a  poverty-of-stimulus stimulation, where those without access do not have the ability to rise socially. The futurist and Google  natural  language  expert  Ray  Kurzweil  has  predicted  an  exponential,  accelerating-returns increase in information and productivity resulting from advances in technology—leading us to the Singularity, when man transcends biology. As the saying goes, Einstein once said that the  most  powerful  force  in  the  universe  is  compound  interest  (an  example  of  an  exponential process),  so  those  who  are  deprived  of  these  technological  gains  are  kept  out  of  the  global economy and fall behind, seemingly irreparably.

Put  the  doom  and  gloom  behind  us,  and  we  start  looking  for  solutions.  While  we  can’t guarantee an egalitarian solution to bring everyone to the same level, we can at least tighten the inequality—lowering the Gini index for translation quality. The first solution comes as a book that has been translated into virtually every language, so it provides a lengthy bitext to train on. Plus, with  over  twenty  English  editions,  its  impact  is  magnified.  If  you  haven’t  already  sussed  it  out, this book is the Bible. Missionaries translated it into every tongue they could, and it’s one of our best  sources  of  parallel  text  for  languages  without  enough  web  presence  for  Google  to  crawl through them. Social media is another tool in global language barriers: it creates network effects that  let  information  transition  through  polyglots  and  overcome  geographic  ties.  These  are  the keys  to  holding  everyone  in  the  churn  of  technology  as  we  approach  the  Singularity:  full augmentation of our intelligence with technology, a digital neocortex. Because since before our species  even  walked  this  planet,  that’s  what  technology  has  been  for:  breaking  down  the barriers of what seems possible.


This article was written by Arya McCarthy. Click here to see more of Arya’s work.

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