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Google’s Pixel Buds will find cultural complexities a challenge


Google recently unveiled its vision for the future of global communication — a pair of headphones that can translate over 40 languages in real time. But are we sure that we can rely on Google Translate to understand the nuances of spoken language and the complexities of culture?

The company has made enormous linguistic progress in the past 12 months. In late 2016, Google announced that it had made a breakthrough in translation and artificial intelligence. Google Translate had started using a neural network to translate some of its most popular languages.


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Last week, the company unveiled its latest invention: Google Pixel Buds, or headphones that can serve as a real-time personal translator. A live demonstration highlighted the simplicity of the new product as it translated a few sentences back and forth between Swedish and English.

“It’s like you’ve got your own personal translator with you everywhere you go,” said Adam Champy, the product manager behind Pixel Buds. “Say you’re in Little Italy, and you want to order your pasta like a pro. All you have to do is hold down on the right earbud and say, “Help me speak Italian.” As you talk, your Pixel phone’s speaker will play the translation in Italian out loud. When the waiter responds in Italian, you’ll hear the translation through your Pixel Buds.”

The product has been heralded as the first coming of the Babel fish, which is bound to have fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (basically anyone who writes about tech) in a frenzy of excitement.

Unfortunately for the $600 billion company, there is one core difference between Douglas Adams’ Babel fish and the Google Pixel Buds. The Babel fish was “mindbogglingly useful” because it had the capacity to not only translate vocabulary but to interpret the cultural nuances that came with it.

Likewise, multilingual humans attempt to make cultural sense of what they are translating. Bringing a computer into the equation has the potential to really mess with these subtleties.

In 2015, a local Spanish town threatened to sue Google when the local word for leafy green “rapini” was mistaken for the word “clitoris.” The mistake left local websites, including the town’s official page, with a renamed annual event: The Clitoris Festival.

The syntax and conjugational differences between Asian languages and European languages adds an additional level of complexity. Countless examples on your local Chinese or Thai restaurant menus highlight this difficulty in translation and point to the level of human fluency that is required to make an accurate interpretation. You can safely assume supermarkets were misled when they boldly stated “F**k Vegetables,” instead of correctly labeling an aisle in their store.

And Google Translate is facing an uphill battle if even professional translators are struggling to interpret the sentence structure of Donald Trump’s ramblings.

“When the logic is not clear or a sentence is just left hanging in the air, then we have a problem,” said the Guardian‘s Chikako Tsuruta, who regularly interprets broadcasts by U.S. networks such as CNN, ABC, and CBS. “We try to grasp the context and get at the core message, but in Trump’s case, it’s so incoherent. You’re interpreting, and then suddenly the sentence stops making sense, and we risk ending up sounding stupid.”

Herein lies the number one question that Google Translate product managers will be asking themselves: How do we get our technology to understand and interpret the subjective cultural aspects and highly variable grammatical complexities involved in spoken language?

Despite an unquestionably exciting year for Google’s deep learning and language department, it seems there is still a long way to go.

Gabe McCauley is a freelance journalist and growth marketer based out of Sydney, Australia.

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The fall TV heavyweights are back, and this week that includes AMC's The Walking Dead, returning for season number eight. Sports fans can get ready for NBA action, while gamers can finally get a fresh taste of Gran Turismo. South Park's long-awaited game is finally arriving as well, while Spider-Man Homecoming tops the 4K Blu-ray list and Netflix premieres season two of Miranda Sings' Haters Back Off. Look after the break to check out each day's highlights, including trailers and let us know what you think (or what we missed).

Blu-ray & Games & Streaming

  • Annabelle Creation (VOD)
  • The Dark Tower (VOD)
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (4K, 3D)
  • Girls Trip
  • Samurai Jack: The Complete Series
  • Serenity (4K)
  • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
  • Apollo 13 (4K)
  • Barry Lyndon
  • American Gods (S1)
  • Stranger Things (S1)
  • Gran Turismo Sport (PS4)
  • The Jackbox Party Pack 4 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch)
  • Life is Strange: Before the Storm - Episode 2 (PS4, PC, Switch)
  • Let's Sing 2018 (PS4, Wii)
  • South Park: The Fractured But Whole (Xbox One, PS4)
  • Elex (Xbox One, PS4)
  • Dungeons 3 (Xbox One, PS4)
  • Megaton Rainfall (PS VR)
  • Rogue Troper Redux (PS4, Xbox One)
  • WWE 2K18 (Xbox One, PS4)

Monday

  • Colts/Titans, ESPN, 8:15 PM
  • Lucifer, Fox, 8 PM
  • The Big Bang Theory, CBS, 8 PM
  • The Voice, NBC, 8 PM
  • 9jkl, CBS, 8:30 PM
  • Dancing with the Stars, ABC, 8 PM
  • WWE Raw, USA, 8 PM
  • Supergirl, CW, 8 PM
  • 3 Hikers, Starz, 9 PM
  • Valor, CW, 9 PM
  • The Gifted, Fox, 9 PM
  • Kevin Can Wait, CBS, 9 PM
  • Me, Myself & I, CBS, 9:30 PM
  • Scorpion, CBS, 10 PM
  • The Brave, NBC, 10 PM
  • The Good Doctor, ABC, 10 PM
  • Desus & Mero, Viceland, 11 PM

Tuesday

  • The Mindy Project, Hulu, 3 AM
  • Patton Oswalt: Annihilation, Netflix, 3 AM
  • Slasher (S2), Netflix 3 AM
  • Celtics/Cavaliers, TNT, 8 PM
  • Rockets/Warriors, TNT, 10:30 PM
  • The Flash, CW, 8 PM
  • Finding Your Roots, PBS, 8 PM
  • The Voice, NBC, 8 PM
  • Lethal Weapon, Fox, 8 PM
  • NCIS, CBS, 8 PM
  • WWE Smackdown, USA, 8 PM
  • The Middle, ABC, 8 PM
  • Fresh Off the Boat, ABC, 8:30 PM
  • DC's Legends of Tomorrow, CW, 9 PM
  • Black-ish, ABC, 9 PM
  • Bull, CBS, 9 PM
  • The Mick, Fox, 9 PM
  • This is Us, NBC, 9 PM
  • Inside the NFL, Showtime, 9 PM
  • Fantomworks, Velocity, 9 PM
  • The Mayor, ABC, 9:30 PM
  • Brooklyn Nine-nine, Fox, 9:30 PM
  • The Mane Event (series premiere), BET, 10 PM
  • Undercover High, A&E, 10 PM
  • Cyberwar, Viceland, 10 PM
  • Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, ABC, 10 PM
  • Law & Order: True Crime, NBC, 10 PM
  • NCIS: NO, CBS, 10 PM
  • American Horror Story, FX, 10 PM
  • The Challenge, MTV, 10 PM
  • Tosh.0, Comedy Central, 10 PM
  • Weediquette (season premiere), Viceland, 10:30 PM
  • 90s House, MTV, 11 PM
  • Desus & Mero, Viceland, 11 PM

Wednesday

  • Chance, Hulu, 3 AM
  • Freakish (season premiere), Hulu, 3 AM
  • 76ers/Wizards, ESPN, 7 PM
  • The Blacklist, NBC, 8 PM
  • Empire, Fox, 8 PM
  • The Goldbergs, ABC, 8 PM
  • Survivor, CBS, 8 PM
  • Lucha Underground (season finale), El Rey, 8 PM
  • Riverdale, CW, 8 PM
  • Speechless, ABC, 8:30 PM
  • Dynasty, CW, 9 PM
  • Modern Family, ABC, 9 PM
  • Law & Order: SVU, NBC, 9 PM
  • Seal Team, CBS, 9 PM
  • Star, Fox, 9 PM
  • American Housewife, ABC, 9:30 PM
  • Timberwolves/Spurs, ESPN, 9:30 PM
  • Mr. Robot, USA, 10 PM
  • Shannara Chronicles, Spike TV, 10 PM
  • Criminal Minds, CBS, 10 PM
  • Chicago PD, NBC, 10 PM
  • Designated Survivor, ABC, 10 PM
  • Liar, Sundance, 10 PM
  • Are You the One, MTV, 10 PM
  • Channel Zero, Syfy, 10 PM
  • You're the Worst, FXX, 10 PM
  • Garage Squad, Velocity, 10 PM
  • South Park, Comedy Central, 10 PM
  • Broad City, Comedy Central, 10:30 PM
  • Rosehaven (season finale), Sundance, 11 PM
  • Desus & Mero, Viceland, 11 PM

Thursday

  • Bomb Scared, Netflix, 3 AM
  • I Love You America, Hulu, 3 AM
  • Grey's Anatomy, ABC, 8 PM
  • Superstore, NBC, 8 PM
  • Gotham, Fox, 8 PM
  • Supernatural, CW, 8 PM
  • Chiefs/Raiders, CBS, 8:30 PM
  • The Good Place, NBC, 8:30 PM
  • The Eleven (series premiere), A&E, 9 PM
  • Arrow, CW, 9 PM
  • Scandal, ABC, 9 PM
  • Van Helsing, Syfy, 9 PM
  • The Orville, Fox, 9 PM
  • Will & Grace, NBC, 9 PM
  • Great News, NBC, 9:30 PM
  • The Walking Dead: Behind the Dead, AMC, 10 PM
  • Chicago Fire, NBC, 10 PM
  • Better Things, FX, 10 PM
  • The Mist, Spike TV, 10 PM
  • Bong Appetit, Viceland, 10:30 PM
  • The Rundown with Robin Thede, BET, 11 PM
  • The Timeline, NFL Network, 11 PM
  • Desus & Mero, Viceland, 11 PM

Friday

  • Haters Back Off (S2), Netflix, 3 AM
  • Wheelman, Netflix, 3 AM
  • The Day I Met El Chapo (Episodes 1 - 3), Netflix, 3 AM
  • Red Oaks (S3), Amazon Prime, 3 AM
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CW, 8 PM
  • Macgyver, CBS, 8 PM
  • Once Upon a Time, ABC, 8 PM
  • Tackle My Ride, NFL Network, 8 PM
  • Jane the Virgin, CW, 9 PM
  • Marvel's Inhumans, ABC, 9 PM
  • Active Shooter, Showtime, 9 PM
  • Z Nation, Syfy, 9 PM
  • The Exorcist, Fox, 9 PM
  • A Football Life: Sam Mills, NFL Network, 9 PM
  • Tough Guys, Showtime, 9 PM
  • Superstition (series premiere), Syfy, 10 PM
  • The Walking Dead: Walker World, AMC, 10 PM
  • Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus, Cinemax, 10 PM
  • Superstition, Syfy, 10 PM
  • Tracey Ullman's Show (season premiere), HBO, 11 PM
  • Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents, Comedy Central, 12 AM

Saturday

  • Too Funny to Fail, Hulu, 3 AM
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, BBC America, 9 PM
  • The Walking Dead: The Journey So Far, AMC, 9 PM

Sunday

  • The Toy Box, ABC, 7 PM
  • Outlander, Starz, 8 PM
  • Shark Tank, ABC, 8 PM
  • The Simpsons, Fox, 8 PM
  • Falcons/Patriots, NBC 8:20 PM
  • Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access, 8:30 PM
  • Ghosted, Fox, 8:30 PM
  • Wisdom of the Crowd, CBS, 8 PM
  • Outlander, Starz, 8 PM
  • The Walking Dead (season premiere), AMC, 9 PM
  • Family Guy, Fox, 9 PM
  • Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, CNN, 9 PM
  • Poldark, PBS, 9 PM
  • Ray Donovan, Showtime, 9 PM
  • The Deuce, HBO, 9 PM
  • The Last Man on Earth, Fox, 9:30 PM
  • NCIS: LA, CBS, 9 PM
  • Talking Dead (Season premiere), AMC, 10 PM
  • Good Behavior, TNT, 10 PM
  • Madam Secretary, CBS, 10 PM
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO, 10 PM
  • Ten Days in the Valley, ABC, 10 PM
  • This is Life with Lisa Ling, CNN, 10 PM
  • Unsung Hollywood, TV One, 10 PM
  • Vice Principals, HBO, 10:30 PM

[All times listed are in ET]

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