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AI Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2016

In the NY Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports on Google’s improving artificial intelligence efforts. The Google Brain team (no, seriously that’s what the team is called) spent almost a year overhauling Google’s translate service, resulting in a startling improvement in the service.

The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

Just after the switchover, Japanese professor Jun Rekimoto noticed the improvement. He took a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, translated it into Japanese, and fed it back into Google Translate to get English back out. Here’s how Hemingway wrote it:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

And here’s the AI-powered translation:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Not bad, especially when you compare it to what the old version of Translate would have produced:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.