Sunday, October 28, 2018

What's Cooking? Fundamental Questions about Blockchain in the Translation Industry

This is a guest post by Luigi on his further thoughts on blockchain in the localization industry. He asks some fundamental questions that should provide readers a good reality check on blockchain stuff you might see at a conference or read in an industry journal. He also points to almost new technology that might really matter for this industry NOW, i.e. interactive virtual assistants (IVAs). The momentum on this is building as we speak, and for the most part, the industry is being swept aside from any relevance with it, as so few are even barely aware of it. This is a new and better way to serve digital customers, a way to improve the overall digital experience, a way to more efficiently serve the right content to the right customer at the right time. This is where CX meets DX and where competitive advantage can be built for digital transformation strategies. But everywhere I turn, I see naysayers. Localization people tend to look for volume and efficiency, and very few look for value.

Neural MT has reached a point where possibly even gorillas could build some kind of  (probably crappy) NMT system. There are 10 or more open source toolkits to choose from. To do NMT (or SMT) well, and deploy systems on successful industrial scale has ALWAYS been difficult, requiring deep competence and deep knowledge of the technology and the data. Yes, the data that you learn from. It really really really does matter. The value here will come from those who have built thousands of systems and have something called insight, which is only acquired after this base exploration work is done. Just like playing a musical instrument even half-way well, it takes time and practice.

To add value to IVAs also means you have to understand content, value, and relevance to the customer at least at some superficial level. I am learning a lot more about content at SDL, and it is very exciting to be at a point in the DX chain where you can influence and shape the overall experience in a way that truly adds value. In an industry that is so focused on translating content that for the most part, only a few customers value, it is exciting to be at the point further up the river where decisions are being made about what customers really need, why, and how it should be provided. Content creation and content architecture in relation to digital journeys are where the highest value decisions are made today it seems. That is where you as a business partner become more relevant and more valuable. It is the point in a B2B relationship where what matters is competence, expertise, and experience, not just price and on-time delivery.

I do not mean to dismiss or disparage blockchain, but for its use in this industry, I think the discussion on the value and benefit needs to rise to a greater level of clarity. In recent news, I saw: Five technologies on the Gartner Hype Cycle for Digital Government Technology, 2018. And guess who No. 1 is? #Blockchain "Approach blockchain with a healthy dose of skepticism,” say the folks at Gartner, and unless I have really solid inside information, I tend to take them seriously. They expect it will be at least five to ten years until the technology matures and begins to deliver benefits. 

But I  am still listening, and waiting to hear a really clear rationale for it (in the translation business) as I still do sense it can be revolutionary, when properly deployed.

For contrast, here is a graphic I saw on Reddit  (click here for high resolution image) that provided many plausible examples of use cases where blockchain does or could create value.


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke

In a recent article, Eleni Vasilaki, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, reminded readers that humans tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand. According to Vasilaki, some technological achievements surpass expectations and human performance are to the point that they look unrealistic and surrounded by a ghastly mystery halo.

A common mistake is in considering AI applications singularly and fearing humans to be replaced. Singularity is near, but nearness is relative. Vasilaki points out that AI is task-oriented, while humans are versatile by nature. Human versatility comes from an understanding of the world, and this, in turn, is developed over years. No AI seems likely to achieve this understanding anytime soon. People seem to overlook how much the huge amount of data and computational power available today might be the reason for the success of today’s AI.

Technology panacea

First Man has brought back memories of the debates around the utility of the space program prior to the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. In a paper prepared for IAF’s meeting in Stuttgart in 1952, Wernher von Braun wrote: “When we are asked the purpose of our striving to fly to the moon and to the planets, we might as well answer with Maxwell’s immortal counter question when he was asked the purpose of his research on electrical induction: «What is the purpose of a newborn baby?»” Today, few seem to pay attention to the fact that the impressive technological development of recent years owes almost everything to the space program.

A by-product of the mission to the Moon was the belief that any technological achievement is possible and at hand, and this might be one of the reasons for the cyclical proposition of new technological hypes. As Isabella Massardo reminds, in the last decade, speech-to-speech technology has been a constant hype, while machine translation has reached the plateau of productivity. Blockchain, together with cryptocurrencies or on its own, also has been a hype for a few years now. In 2017, blockchain was already on the verge of disillusionment. In 2018, blockchain (now for data security) is still a hype. Not surprisingly, among the emerging and rapidly accelerating technologies that are listed to be actively monitored as disrupting innovations for being expected to profoundly impact the way of dealing with the workforce, customers and partners, none is directly related to translation.

Indeed, democratized AI might make digital twins closer than blockchain, as hundreds of millions of things are estimated to have digital twins within five years. Actually, according to Gartner, blockchain “has the potential to increase resilience, reliability, transparency, and trust in centralized systems.” The keyword here is “centralized systems,” while it is now pretty clear that the magic word to sell blockchain is “decentralization”.

Unfortunately, the decentralization of business models and processes is definitely not straightforward for most businesses. As a matter of fact, many are still trying to understand what blockchain is and how it works and, more importantly, how it can be utilized for mission-critical applications. Not surprisingly, Gartner anticipates that through 2018, 85% of projects with “blockchain” in their titles will deliver business value without actually using a blockchain. Also according to Gartner, “blockchain might one day redefine economies and industries via the programmable economy and use of smart contracts, but for now, the technology is immature.”

A matter of transparency

Even technology enthusiasts should better be cautious about the prospected use of blockchain in translation. Maybe, translation blockchain enthusiasts might answer a few questions and help clarify:
  1. How is blockchain supposed to solve the perennial problem of interoperability?
  2. How is blockchain supposed to help have more professional translators to match demand?
  3. How is blockchain supposed to open up existing language platforms?
  4. How is blockchain supposed to guarantee security, confidentiality, and privacy?
  5. How is blockchain supposed to cut translation prices further?
  6. How is blockchain supposed to make translation quality quantifiable?
  7. Is the network for translation blockchain open?
  8. How is mining implemented, through PoW or PoS?
  9. Mining for cryptocurrencies requires huge investments; this is why it is rewarded with cryptocurrencies, which are negotiable. Are “tokens” negotiable too?
  10. Given the investment in tokens required, how can users be guaranteed against a lack of transparency and a possible crash?
Contrary to what has been happening in situations where the introduction and implementation of blockchain is advocated, or has been taking place, no one in the translation industry has been asking any of these questions, at least publicly or out loud, and obviously, no answer has been given or anticipated so far.


Presenting interoperability as a dilemma still in 2018 means that the translation industry is far away from maturity. Since inception, the translation industry has been proclaimed to be on the edge of a massive change in how they receive and translate content. Changes have actually happened over the years, coming almost exclusively from outsiders. Major translation buyers have been imposing their own solutions to their own problems with their suppliers who, in cascade, have imposed these solutions to their own vendors. The fragmentation of the industry has effectively prevented the birth of any real industry standards, further encouraging this intrusiveness. Translation industry players have always been so obsessed with the risk of compromising their own little garden and thus rejecting, if not hindering, where possible, any real standardization effort. Major players have been trying, in turn, to take advantage of any standardization initiatives, even those that they themselves advocate, to enforce their own models and maintain what they see, often wrongly, as a competitive advantage.

This attitude is in blatant contrast with any new methodologies, but it has the reassuring effect of keeping players in a sort of comfort zone, allowing them to prevent any “resource dispersion” and contain any losses due to the inefficiencies ensuing from their immobility. This is also why the processes of most LSPs are optimized for small projects, and why organic growth and a critical mass are so hard to achieve. Unfortunately, process efficiency comes from design and technical interoperability is effective only when technology matches processes, not vice versa.

A leap of faith

Everyone working in the translation industry knows the problems permeating it. Listing them is barely a starting point towards a solution whatsoever.

How is “tracing a user’s history” supposed to be “increasing trust for the translator’s ability and capability?” How is the tracking of digital assets supposed to benefit their creators when blockchain in no way can guarantee ownership? A ledger is used to record transactions not to certify the ownership of the assets in each transaction.

Therefore, Kirti Vashee’s doubts here are well expressed: “Everybody involved in blockchain seems to be trying to raise money. The dot-com boom and bust also had, to some extent similar characteristics, with promises of transformation and very little proof that anything that was clearly better than existing solutions. I feel the problem description of the LIC initiative is clear in this overview, but I am still unclear on what exactly is the solution. I would like to see examples of a few or many transactions executed through this blockchain to see how it is different and better before, I cast any final judgment.”

A relationship-based industry

The translation industry is an intricate intertwinement of relationships between the businesses, players, publishers, analysts, and consultants governing its economy. In this context, the difference is made by who you know. For this reason, ignoring who Renato Beninatto is tantamount to a lèse-majesté offense and it is not exactly clever for someone in a prominent position to ignore him or, even worse, pretend to ignore him, as Lionbridge’s CEO, John Fennelly reportedly did at LocWorld 38 in Seattle, even though or especially if he comes from another industry and a different experience.
The intertwinement of relationships that characterizes the industry has resulted in exclusive clubs that have their meetings at industry events. Each area of the industry has its own club, and each club has its governance. Occasionally, members of different clubs from different areas mingle, but generally, clubs remain distinct. Some clubs are more numerous or powerful than others and their governance may be assimilated to a mafia, as a young and overly ambitious would-be analyst and consultant named it. He also did whatever it took to join it, and he made it.

As long as you are a member of one of these clubs and share its spirit and its policy, you can be sure that any initiative you take will not be hindered, far from it. No one will ever challenge you or even ask you any embarrassing questions.

Openness and negotiability

For this very reason, though, the questions on the openness of the blockchain network and the negotiability of tokens are fundamental. Blockchain may have the potential to increase resilience, reliability, transparency, and trust in centralized systems, but the most powerful promise of blockchain is about decentralization. Being extremely clear on the openness of the blockchain network and on the associated protocols is paramount.

Clarifying the negotiability of “tokens” is equally crucial. Indeed, more and more often, “investment” is the other word accompanying cryptocurrencies, even though, in principle, they are not supposed to generate returns; after all, it’s just software. But they are used also to purchase goods having a counter value in fiat money and are then negotiable. Bitcoin, for examples, can be converted into cash, using a Bitcoin ATM or a Bitcoin debit card or via an online service. Joining a token-based translation blockchain network would require an initial investment in tokens, whether on a barter exchange for data or in fiat money. If tokens are distributed by a centralized entity, this entity would most probably be asking people to purchase tokens. Even though any new users that would join the network won’t fund older users, the founders will end up being the richest ones guaranteed, as in a typical Ponzi scheme: The more people join, the more the founders will earn. And this is the only way they can make money. From nothing, as the only asset of founders is the network. Their net worth would be in fiat currency while the members of the network would not be able to cash their tokens after having bestowed their data assets to the network, and if the network crashes they might be dumped with nothing.

Finally, with merger or acquisition accounting for growth at 3 of the top 5 fastest growing LSPs for 2018 it is hard to believe that these will join the blockchain network anytime soon. And, by the way, there has always been only one man in black.

Beyond baloney

The comparison with the automotive industry and the car is definitely out of scale, but it is true that translators too use only a fraction of the many features available in any translation software tool. Also, the automobile is now a general purpose technology and the only possible comparison might be with the smartphone.

Yet, although “augmented translation” is just diverting marketing crap, if democratized AI will make any sense, it will help redefine the value of linguists rather than taking jobs away from them.
Arthur Clarke’s famous quote above explains why technology is outpacing our ability to comprehend what we can do with it. The next new thing in the translation industry will very soon be conversational agents and virtual assistants rather than blockchain.

Virtual assistants, aka chatbots or bots, already are or are going to be the bridge between technical documentation teams and customer support and power most customer service interactions. Indeed, technical support is the most common type of chatbot content, and bots are said to be the new FAQ.
Technically speaking, there are two kinds of virtual agents:
  • One kind is scripted. It can respond only to questions that it was programmed to understand.
  • Another uses AI, so it can understand what the customer is telling it, and its knowledge grows the more it interacts with people.
The issue, today, is how to prepare, organize and structure content so that chatbots can use it.
Translation industry players, from each side of the fence, have learned to reuse content, while CMS systems are still underused, especially for single-sourcing. The next challenge for content producers is to extrapolate answers to customer questions from a unified set of content modules delivered across channels, rather than creating new batches of (largely duplicated) content or recreating content by copying and pasting existing content from their CMS into a form that chatbots can use.

More technical authors will be needed accustomed to single sourcing through CMS. Will they be translators accustomed to leveraging past translations using TMs?

In fact, Microsoft has already issued a new chapter of its style guide devoted to writing for chatbots.

The main components of chatbots are four:
  1. Entities
    The “things” users are talking about with a chatbot; they can be inherited from taxonomy nodes in a CMS.
  2. Intents
    The goal of a user’s interaction with a chatbot; it can be mapped as content elements in a CMS and be defined as primary and alternate questions.
  3. Utterances
    The (unique) questions or commands a user asks a chatbot.
  4. Responses
    The answers the chatbot returns to utterances; they can be defined in a CMS.
The coming future authoring skill consists in breaking existing content into smaller, modular chunks within CMSs, to achieve COPE (Create Once Publish Everywhere), the new holy grail.

And if dealing with Conversational UI, the new challenge will be writing dialogues. This will require the skills of a UX writer and a creative writer. Ready Player One?


Luigi Muzii's profile photo

Luigi Muzii has been in the "translation business"  or "the industry" since 1982 and has been a business consultant since 2002, in the translation and localization industry through his firm. He focuses on helping customers choose and implement best-suited technologies and redesign their business processes for the greatest effectiveness of translation and localization-related work.

This link provides access to his other blog posts.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very insightful post, as usual! But I must make a correction. John Fennelly's comment was tongue in cheek. We talked extensively before the panel. I actually met him when he got out of his taxi in front of the venue and walked with him to event. For an outsider, he has a very good grasp of our business and how it moves.