Do Interpreters Dream of Electric Classifiers? (Or, The Year Interpreters Became Obsolete)


In his recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov takes a bold stand against “technological solutionism”, the idea that complex political, social, and economic problems can be solved with social media, smartphone apps, and crowdsourcing. Criticism of the role of technology in society it nothing new. (See Malcom Gladwell’s excellent New Yorker article The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.) But Morozov’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. In the past few weeks, several projects have come to light that on their surface appear to challenge the future human sign language interpreters. Interpreters: prepare to go the way of pay phones, VHS cassettes, and department store catalogs. You’re about to become obsolete.

For many contemporary global problems we have unfortunately reached a point where our faith in so-called “technological solutions” allow us to be proudly ignorant yet sublimely guilt-free.

Big name companies like Microsoft, the secretive DARPA organization, and researchers at Asia University have funded projects to create technological solutions to sign language interpreting. Microsoft is creating software to capitalize on their Kinect hardware to recognize sign language and translate it into English (Call of Duty + sign language = very sneaky platoon). DARPA funded a project to create a robot that uses sign language (did someone forget to plug in the interpreter?). And researchers in Asia have created a bracelet that translates signs into spoken language (although they seemed to have forgotten the other half of the conversation).

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I doubt anyone who understands sign language thinks these technologies will replace interpreters. The translations these robots produce will be, well, robotic. Spontaneous human language continues to be one of the most complex, unpredictable, inimitable phenomena on our planet. In my interpretation, these technologies are merely conceptual demonstrations designed to gain recognition, earn research funding, and to test  hardware and software that has little to actually do with sign language. The researchers on these projects know they can’t recreate human sign language, and I can’t help but think that they are bluffing a bit to the media.

Even so, bluffing is not innocent. To successfully bluff, you have to bluff in a way that you know others will foolishly believe. Behind these projects I detect a sense of contempt for the richness of sign languages and a subtle (and very wrong) belief that since sign language is more rudimentary than spoken languages, technological solutions are more feasible. Many articles I found about these technologies have that “gee-whiz, we could help the poor Deaf folks” quality to it. I believe we should stand against this form of parentalism.

People often say that technology has an inherent democratic effect. Technology can democratize creativity and intelligence. But technology can also democratize ignorance. Much of the public will have their misconceptions about the Deaf community confirmed by news articles about this technology. It reminds me of the viral video from 2011 that showed the woman getting the cochlear implant. The real mistake of these technologies is not that they will actually replace interpreters – it’s that they perpetuate misconceptions about the Deaf community and sign language.

There’s more at stake here than perceptions about the Deaf community or sign language. The main problem with “technological solutionism” is that  important social problems become reduced to their most superficial and algebraic aspects. Should we address inequality by addressing massive earning differences between CEOs and lower level workers? No: develop an app that helps the unemployed find work. Should we restrict carbon emissions to mitigate climate change? No, but please join an “I-heart-nature” Facebook group. Should we reconsider war because of the atrocious cost of human life? No: just replace soldiers with drones. Should we pay interpreters a living wage and recognize the rights of Deaf minorities? No: invest millions of dollars to get computers to do the job. For many contemporary global problems we have unfortunately reached a point where our faith in so-called “technological solutions” allow us to be proudly ignorant yet sublimely guilt-free.

Through faith technological progress, we forget the causes of inequality, injustice, and ignorance in the first place. And as Max Horkheimer wrote in Critique of Instrumental Reason,

No age has demonstrated the universality of forgetting as clearly as the present.

I’m not worried that robots will replace interpreters. I’m actually quite curious about how technology will impact the interpreting community. My real concern is that millions of dollars are pumped into a circus of technological solutions, while public ignorance about interpreting, the Deaf community, and sign language remains pervasive and ignored.

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3 thoughts on “Do Interpreters Dream of Electric Classifiers? (Or, The Year Interpreters Became Obsolete)”

  1. I found this article to be well written and interesting. I want to go to school for asl interpreting, translating, or teaching and was honestly concerned for the outlook of the jobs available to me. This helped me to really understand and appreciate the deaf community as well as knowing I can follow through with this dream with my head held high. Thanks.

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