I read that Bill Gates is sad that he never learnt a foreign language. I guess he was busy.
He is now rectifying that oversight, or omission, or whatever it was (nothing so banal as a failure) not by taking lessons but by downloading a language-learning app, Duolingo. Duolingo is not unique as a learning algorithm, in that it creates a tree of knowledge. As you progress through your target language (I tried a bit of Spanish over the weekend) by means of simple repetitive tasks, you unlock further levels, further little nodes of knowledge which can take you down new paths, and so on.
It is nice to try something new, I suppose. Duolingo sets goals of time, gives pleasant little rewards as you move through a task. Perhaps it is the answer. However, the question remains, as always, why you would bother. Bill Gates must be fully aware that real-time translation devices are only a matter of a few years away – or, indeed, that they already exist, in the shape of Google Translate, an app that I was shocked to discover will translate text at which you point your camera with absolute simultaneity, if, admittedly, with the usual comical gibberish. The effect is not unlike looking through X-ray specs at another language.
Well, that is the way the world is going. I was reading an article by John Lanchester about robotics, and how it is not just blue-collar, repetitive labour that is at risk, but also a lot of white collar labour. He mentions a list of 702 jobs at risk from algorithms of one sort or another, where No. 702 is least at risk and No.1 is most at risk. Most at risk are telemarketers, apparently. At 698 are insurance underwriters. I haven’t seen the whole list, but Lanchester notes that writing is at No. 123. Much of the bald reporting on company results (quarterly profits, stock market performance, etc.) which appears in newspapers or online is already machine-generated.
This blog hasn’t got long before it’s written by robots then, for people using Duolingo. For now it’s just me. For a glimpse of the future, however, here is a short piece on the robots which fulfil your Amazon orders (some of the robots are humans, as it turns out).