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Trouble Ahead? Why Predicting the Language Sector's Future Is Hard

Posted by Erik Vogt on Tue, Jan 31, 2017 @ 03:36 PM

Predicting the Future Is Hard

How does one forecast the future? Is it possible to plumb the depths of our language industry to predict what lies on the business seas ahead? What is clouding our crystal balls?

In our recent webinar, “Past is Prologue: Language Tech Predictions for the Next 20 Years,” my colleague Jim Compton, a Technology Manager here at Moravia, joined me for a lively journey through the halls of our recent histories to explain just how challenging and valuable—and, in retrospect, amusing—past predictions can be, and how our predictions can and cannot reveal what is ahead.

Here are a few common misperceptions that keep us from crystal-clear clarity.

How we would be, as we imagined back then

Let’s take a look back to the mid-to-late 1990s. A lot was in flux. There was no dedicated internet connection, but modems were proliferating and getting faster. Microsoft was bundling Internet Explorer into Windows 95 as it was about to displace Netscape, and Yahoo was rolling out an actual directory of websites. Hotmail made its debut, and email rapidly replaced postal mail for personal correspondence. A computer finally beat a world-renowned (and very human) chess champion. Toy Story, the first feature-length computer-animated film, topped the box offices. And two students at Stanford University were consuming network bandwidth with of their then-labeled “BackRub” before calling it Google.

Out of what seemed like a chaotic surge of investment, experimentation, and research emerged the standards that drive the early 21st century digital age. Unicode. JDK. SEO. W3C’s CSS specs.

It also saw the rise of the machines. Supercomputers became the backbones of commerce, transportation, and communication systems, among others. New techniques for encoding, compressing, and transmitting digital media moved mobile video from the fringe to the center. On-demand became a way of life, delivering a paradigm shift that saw the decline of some major brands and the rise of others. From BlackBerry to the iPhone. From Blockbuster to Netflix. From Barnes & Noble to Amazon.com.

Within popular media, what we imagined of the future made some good guesses on where we would land. Back to the Future (1985 and 1989) saw flat-screen TVs, video conferencing, and self-lacing basketball shoes—all of which are realities today. (Hat tip to the Nike Innovation Kitchen!) In the movie The Net (1995), actress Sandra Bullock was up against a life-hacking computer bad guy, who makes a call via a screen he can navigate with the touch of a finger.

Of course, the professional futurists also did their takes on what was possible. Among them was Ray Kurzweil, a noted inventor and tech entrepreneur, who predicted a future in which language would be no barrier to commerce at all.

How we (wrongly) predict

Developments in AI and language processing, while notable, are just one part of the enormous potential in how business (and international business communication) can work. Even today, technology-driven systems are supplanting traditional communication in transaction management.

Recently, for example, I bought some desert combat boots. They were made in China by a Japanese company and I purchased them from an Israeli distributor via an English-language website. I also traveled abroad in a country where I did not know the language, but where I could use an on-demand car service app to get me from point A to point B with nary a word passed between me and the driver. All of those components did not need each other for the transaction to move from first click to last—technology was the go-between.

While our technology-driven future holds considerable promise, what that future holds remains nevertheless hard to predict for a number of reasons. Among them:

We base tomorrow’s guesses on current trends

Our tendency to extrapolate from recent trends naturally overlooks disruptors. In 1949, ENIAC was considered the most advanced computer out there. It was 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighed 30 tons. An article in Popular Mechanics imagined at the time that, someday, computers would only require 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons. They did not anticipate the transistor.

We exaggerate our own forecasting ability

We tend to exaggerate the accuracy of our current understanding of things, and therefore our predictions, imagining a world in which things flow from A to B along a straight line. The reality is that there are key drivers to generational economic changes that cannot be modeled with clean mathematics.

We believe only what we see

There was a common saying in 16th century London that asserted, generally, “there is no such thing as a black swan.” Until black swans were actually discovered in the wilds of Western Australia, their nonexistence was assumed to be true. (For interesting side reading on this, I recommend philosopher and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.)

These reasons, among others, show how easily we fail to imagine—in the absence of some knowledge—what could be. In a world that has moved so quickly from vacuum tubes to integrated circuits, our path is growing and demands to be sped up. What is ahead is still to be seen. 

Do you want to learn more about the radical innovations we’ve enjoyed since the mid 1990s and how they relate to developments in today’s modern translation management processes? Read our upcoming posts or listen to the complete webinar yourself. Just click on the presentation link below.

Language Tech Predictions for the Next 20 Years [Webinar]

Topics: Localization Technology