Maybe it was just one sentence that started the whole thing off. Whilst at work, I was listening to a discussion between a talk show host and the German politician Lars Klingbeil, topic: AI and the working world. He said that a lot of workers might face being replaced by AI in the future, translators among others. I pricked up my ears. Translation? That was the focal point of the career I was planning on!
On this day, I started a research project that would last several months. Every second day or so, I would type in “AI” and “translation” into Google News and see what latest articles came up. It was not pretty. One of the most popular contributions was by Ofer Shoshan, the boss of a company called “One Hour Translation”. He claims that in the next 10 years, most translation would be done by the new Neural Machine Translation-systems that are currently developed by Microsoft and Google. (Up until 2016, most of the stuff you typed into Google Translate was converted into complete bullshit, but with the advent of Neural Machine Translation, the results are eerily precise and elegant.)
“Doing research on how AI is going to change the language industry became my new favourite, masochistic hobby”
There I was, staring at the screen, thinking of the hundreds and thousands of hours I had spent learning Chinese, all in the hope of earning my living by working with this beautiful language. And now a machine was to take this all away from me. Doing research on how AI is going to change the language industry became my new favourite, masochistic hobby. And there were plenty of things on the news this summer: among others the launch of the first really good real-time interpreting devices and the introduction of an AI translation system that can automatically translate Chinese novels into English.
I began to think of other areas where my Chinese skills might be needed. Maybe as a Chinese teacher? But I have never been good with groups of people, and there were speculations that AI might even replace teachers in the long run. Maybe as a marketing specialist for Chinese products? But I didn`t know the first thing about marketing, and anyway, companies don`t really care about cultural sensibilities and differences as long as the figures add up. Maybe as a lecturer at university? But positions are few, I would have to study for a PhD first, and then again — the problem with groups. I even looked for some far-fetched way to combine Chinese with IT (Apparently, there is none).
“Becoming a translator — especially a literary translator — is more than ever a choice of live-long starving or the privilege of a “rich second generation” child”
In our times, language is playing a less and less important role, it seems. Only after the service is made faster and more efficient and the pictures on the website shine in the brightest colours, companies assign a badly-paid freelancer to actually write or translate its content. Becoming a translator — especially a literary translator — is more than ever a choice of live-long starving or the privilege of a “rich second generation” child (the “heirs generation” in Germany). Now more than ever, trade publishers would rather import a bad, formalistic story from the Anglo-American world than take on the risk of publishing a Chinese translation.
At some point though, I had was fed up with wallowing in self-pity, and tried to focus on practical solutions. That`s just what happens after you have stomached a disappointment — you take in the parts that your body doesn`t completely reject — you adapt. Getting acquainted with the field of IT would at some point be unavoidable, if I wanted to be able to make a decent living as a freelancer — maybe I could combine website localisation with webdesign?
On the other hand — why should (and how can) workers adapt if the working world is facing as dramatic a change as 50% automation? Journalist Paul Mason (Postcapitalism. A Guide To Our Future) and anthropologist David Graeber (Bullshit Jobs. The Rise of Pointless Work And What We Can Do About It) are of the same opinion.
“Economy seems to place the least value on the jobs that actually produce some creative value”
David Graeber points out that the workers in the creative industry who delegate the work, fill out forms to delegate the work or tell someone to fill out the forms to delegate the work often make more money than the ones actually doing the creative work. The irony is that these “bullshit jobs”, as he calls them and, as he claims, make up around 50% of jobs, could be automated very easily (or even simply abolished). However, economy seems to place the least value on the jobs that actually produce some creative value or that contain a “caring element”, but seems to cling to these bullshit jobs. I certainly did not hear Lars Klingbeil mention middle managers being chucked out any time soon.
Paul Mason, an economic journalist, goes one step further: He demands compensation for all the people who face the loss of their jobs because of automation. Of course, his argument is based on the assumption that all information — the commodity that sectors like journalism and translation are mostly preoccupied with — will be free in the future: info-capitalism. Which is a beautiful thing — but only if you have a way to ensure that all producers of information will not depend on any income from what they`re doing. Mason suggests, like many others, a universal basic income, the benefit also being that what you do gets disconnected from how much money you get for it. Because at the end of the day, if you truly value what you`re doing, you`re going to do it anyway, without there being a monetary reward. And surely, you`re going to do it with a lot less pressure.