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Data Sheet—Baidu Looks to Amaze With A.I. Translation in Real Time

October 24, 2018, 1:08 PM UTC

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If someone asked me to make a list of jobs I thought least at risk of getting replaced by robots, I’d have ranked “simultaneous interpreter” near the top. Until today.

As a long-suffering student of Japanese and Mandarin, I know the fiendish difficulty of trying to find the right words instantly in a foreign language. At Fortune, we often use simultaneous interpreters at our conferences. They don’t come cheap. The task is so taxing that only a few thousand people in the world are qualified to do it professionally, and typically they work in pairs, trading 20 or 30 minute shifts, to stave of fatigue.

Now comes Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with the claim that this superhuman occupation, too, eventually will be surrendered to, well, something superior to humans. In Beijing today, the company unveiled an A.I.-enabled tool it claims can translate English into Chinese and German almost instantly. Baidu calls its interpretation technology STACL, short for “Simultaneous Translation with Anticipation and Controllable Latency.” As it’s name (sort of) implies, Baidu believes that what distinguishes its system from existing online translation services is a combination of speed and flexibility.

While products like Google Translate allow users to say or write a sentence and receive a translation after a lag, Baidu claims its new translation tool allows for sentences to be deciphered in real time, matching the best human interpreters. Users dealing with closely-related languages, like French and Spanish, can chose to start translation after a single word, while those dealing with unrelated languages, like Chinese and English, can instruct the system to wait longer to improve accuracy.

If it works as advertised, the product is a breakthrough for Baidu which has invested heavily in A.I. CEO Robin Li has staked Baidu’s future on the technology with big bets on Apollo, an open-source platform for autonomous vehicles, and DuerOs, an AI-powered digital assistant. Natural language processing—the ability for machines to understand human speech—is an especially high-stakes battleground. Tech giants including Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet’s Google see natural language and voice recognition as key technologies that can be used to integrate a wide array of different products.

For now, Baidu says the system still isn’t accurate enough to replace human translators. But the company has enough confidence to use it to translate speeches at its annual Baidu World Conference in Beijing next month.

Speaking of China-based tech conferences, don’t miss the opportunity to learn first-hand about Chinese breakthroughs in all forms of AI at this year’s Fortune Global Tech Forum, which will be held in Guangzhou on November 29-30th. We’ll hear from some of the biggest names in China tech, including Sequoia Capital’s Neil Shen, Hillhouse Capital’s Zhang Lei, former Google China boss Kai Fu Lee, and Ant Financial’s Alan Qi, as well as global luminaries like Jim Breyer, Gary Reischel, and Salesforce AI guru Richard Socher. Register here!

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

NEWSWORTHY

Pretty please. Is there hope yet for troubled but beloved theater subscription service MoviePass? Parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics said on Tuesday it would spin off the unit into a new company called MoviePass Entertainment. Just how that might hurt or help the service was not clear. "HMNY might benefit from separating our movie-related assets from the rest of our company,” HMNY CEO Ted Farnsworth said without explaining much.

Days of future past. Likely sparking a deep backlash among its employees, Amazon has met with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, to pitch the use of its A.I.-powered facial recognition software at the border. Amazon said the June conversations were merely follow up with interested parties after a McKinsey-sponsored conference. At the other end of the spectrum, Apple CEO Tim Cook was in Europe on Wednesday, blasting what he called the “data industrial complex” for violating consumers' privacy rights. Cook also praised the EU's privacy rules and called for a U.S. national privacy law, as he has in the past, in the speech at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Strategic divergence. Wall Street heard from the two largest telecom companies over the past 24 hours and rendered a split verdict. Verizon pleased investors in a report Tuesday morning, as third quarter revenue rose 3% to $32.6 billion and adjusted earnings per share gained 28% to $1.22. In its critical wireless unit, revenue jumped 7% and Verizon gained almost 300,000 net new phone customers. Verizon's stock price gained 4% to reach its highest close in almost 20 years. But AT&T had mixed results, reported on Wednesday morning. Revenue increased 15% to $45.7 billion, largely due to the acquisition of Time Warner, while adjusted EPS increased 22% to 90 cents, short of analyst forecasts. AT&T shares dropped 3% in premarket trading.

Running silent. Women's health product startup Naya Health, which sold a $1,000 breast pump, has shut down its customer support site and stopped responding to media queries. The company has been bombarded by customer complaints about late or missing shipments, product flaws, and a lack of replacement parts.

Click, click, click. A massive digital advertising fraud scheme encompassed more than 125 Android apps, mostly games, and related web sites, BuzzFeed reports. Fraudsters purchased legitimates apps and then used them to help generate fake ad traffic. Google closed down many of the apps once they were discovered and is continuing to investigate.

Bifurcated. Former top Microsoft exec Terry Myerson, who retired in March, is joining venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group as a venture partner and The Carlyle Group as an operating executive. "Being part of two teams that are working with lots of different technologies and companies is very exciting to me,” Myerson told GeekWire.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Almost all communications networks have security flaws that can be exploited by would-be eavesdroppers. Edward Snowden's leaks revealed the extensive successful efforts of the NSA to grab transmissions off fiber optic cables around the world, for example. So some scientists at the QuTech research center in Delft, in the Netherlands, are looking for ways to use quantum physics to build an uncrackable network. Martin Giles visited the center and reports on its efforts in Technology Review. Giles explains the basic idea:

The internet is vulnerable to the kind of hacking revealed by Snowden because data still travels over cables in the form of classical bits—a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s and 0s. A hacker who manages to tap into the cables can read and copy those bits in transit.

The laws of quantum physics, on the other hand, allow a particle—for example, an atom, an electron, or (for transmitting along optical cables) a photon of light—to occupy a quantum state that represents a combination of 1 and 0 simultaneously. Such a particle is called a quantum bit, or qubit. When you try to observe a qubit, its state “collapses” to either 1 or 0. This, explains Wehner, means that if a hacker taps into a stream of qubits, the intruder both destroys the quantum information in that stream and leaves a clear signal that it’s been tampered with.

Because of this property, qubits have been used for quite some time to generate encryption keys in a process known as quantum key distribution (QKD). This involves sending data in classical form over a network, while the keys needed to decrypt the data are transmitted separately in a quantum state.

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BEFORE YOU GO

You may have heard that the main gyroscope on the Hubble space telescope was glitching and that the backup failed, too, putting the critical astronomy tool's future in jeopardy. Fear not—NASA has fixed the problem. How'd they do it? They turned the gyro on and off a few times.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.