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800M Facebook users see automatic language translation each month

TechCrunch TechCrunch 23/05/2016 Josh Constine

Machine learning is accomplishing Facebook’s mission of connecting the world across language barriers. Facebook is now serving 2 billion text translations per day. Facebook can translate across 40 different languages in 1800 directions like French to English. And 800 million users, almost half of all Facebook users, see translations each month.

Alan Packer, Facebook’s Director of Engineering for language technology, revealed this progress today at MIT’s Emtech Digital conference in San Francisco. The conference has a big focus on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other cutting edge ways to parse data.

Earlier, Pinterest’s head of product Jack Chou revealed that just six months after launching its visual search feature, Pinterest sees 130 million visual searches every month. The product was built by a small team of four, and allows people to search using a source image instead of just text. Pinterest also now has 50 million buyable pins from 20 million different merchants.

Facebook’s ability to not only translate but understand the content of text and images could lead to big advances in the relevancy of the News Feed. Packer explained how if Facebook can understand a post asking for recommendations of hotels in Paris, it could surface that to friends it knows recently visited Paris, suggest a particular friend to ask, or recommend making a related search for public posts of recommendations.

Facebook was an early pioneer of online translation, building a crowdsourcing tool to get users around the world to translate its interface’s text into their local tongues. In 2011, Facebook began using automated systems to translate users’ posts and comments in the News Feed.

The motive is obvious, socially conscious, and lucrative. Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. I asked Packer how translation plays into that, and he said “The mission of the translation team is removing language as a barrier to making the world more open and connected.”

While he didn’t have concrete numbers, Packer says that access to the translation product leads users to “have more friends, more friends of friends, and get exposed to more concepts and cultures”. And the company know it’s grown important to users, because “when we turned it off for some people, they went nuts!”

We’re rapidly approaching an era of the AI haves and have-nots. Tech giants who don’t have the engineering prowess to parse the meaning of their content or information won’t be able to deliver it to users as effectively. Companies like Google and Facebook could flourish while others that are more strapped for cash and resources to invest in research stumble.

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