Will I Have a Job Five Years From Now?

Will I Have a Job Five Years From Now?
May 11, 2016
With Michael and Renato
Every translator today seems to be asking one question above all others. And the question is this--will we continue to have jobs in the future? Or will machine translation, better translation software, more speech, voice and text translator apps—and who knows what else—eventually make our jobs obsolete? The answers may surprise you.
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Speaker Transcript
Renato I am Renato Beninatto.
Michael And I am Michael Stevens.
Renato Today we’re going to talk about “am I going to have a job tomorrow?”
Michael That’s really relevant considering we’re sitting in Monterey at our annual business meeting with a bunch of co-workers. We’re actually recording in front of a live studio audience, Renato, so this actually makes me a little nervous, the fact that we’re talking about whether we’re going to have jobs tomorrow. You don’t seem to care.
Renato I don’t care because it doesn’t really matter! It doesn’t really matter. The reality is that this is a question that is part of the challenge of a transition society. We are in an environment where everything is changing. The notion of a job or a function is changing. A translator 100 years ago is very different from what a translator was 35 years ago when I started. It’s different from what a translation is today and what a translation is going to be in 10 years.
Michael You jumped into the deep end very quickly. You say a transition society. What do you mean by that? I feel that but I’m not sure what you mean.
Renato Change is happening at a speed that is unprecedented. We talk about, in the language industry, the increasing volumes; we talk about the speed of content; we talk about the explosion of content, number of languages, number of formats. Everything has become bigger and more complex. We still think of jobs in terms of a pay check.
Michael What caused this change?
Renato Technology; access to information; the internet; and the processing power of technology.
Michael So, you’re one of those people who says that the internet is the printing press.
Renato Absolutely.
Michael Or Henry Ford’s manufacturing methods.
Renato Absolutely. But, the internet does what those events did over 100 years, over 50 years, over 10 years, every day; it happens every day. So, when we talk about tomorrow and there is this concept of singularity when you won’t know anymore, when the knowledge or the information is coming from a human or computer and that all will be blended. Kurtzweil, who’s the guy who talks about singularity claims that we will achieve singularity in language, in translation, by 2019. So, your question, theoretically, by 2019 nobody will have a job in translation.
Michael Yes. We’ve been talking for 2.5 minutes and you’ve already gotten us to singularity. That is intense! That’s a reflection of something that people refer to as Moore’s Law, this idea that – what is the chip?
Renato Moore’s Law is that the speed of processing doubles every 18 months.
Michael Actually, the latest research is saying that Moore’s Law is obsolete because it’s faster, much faster. And so our podcast is reflecting that fact, that we are already at singularity two minutes into the podcast.
Renato This is the beginning of the conversation, when I said that everything is changing. Moore’s Law is being challenged. The six degrees of separation because of Facebook is now 3.5 degrees of separation. So, you can connect any two people in the world through three connectors.
Michael So, this affects people’s work. When we are looking at our industry, when we are looking at the people who are affected by it, we are talking about a few groups of people; we’re talking about translators.
Renato We’re talking about translators but the language business is not only about translation. We work at a company, Moravia, that has 1,500 employees. I don’t know how many but I would bet that we have under 100 translators employed in the company.
Michael What are all these people at our company doing, then? I am only in sales but…
Renato Not everybody is so insignificant as you are! So… People actually work. So, there are some people that manage processes. There are people that manage people; there are people that manage finances; there are people that manage infrastructure; technology; files converting formats from one source to another; doing machine translation. One of the things that is key when we talk about the future is that the functions will exist. How we process those functions is what is going to change.
Michael What do you mean by functions?
Renato The function of converting content from one language to another. It doesn’t need to be done by a person, 100 percent of the time. You might need a person to push the button and make that happen. You might need a person to check. So, the standard human productivity per day is 2,500 words. If I were to do 2,500 words per day for translation I would starve because the price of translation is not that high and I couldn’t maintain the lifestyle that I have today. I made more money 10 years ago than I make today if I were living as a translator.
Michael So, what I’m hearing, translators are making less money.
Renato No, I didn’t say that. If their productivity stayed the same. I made a presentation, seven or eight years ago where I said that in the future translators were going to be doing 30,000 words per day because they would use technology to improve their productivity. I thought I was being futuristic and visionary. And people in the audience said “you’re crazy Renato”.
Michael They told you they are already doing that?
Renato No, it was worse. The next day SDL did a mass-mailing with a testimonial from a very well-known translator saying that thanks to the SDL translation memory technology she was doing 30,000 words per day. I said “I said that this was going to happen 10 years from now!” and it happened the next day.
Michael I don’t even know what Moore’s Law really means but I think that’s Moore’s Law. I think the encouragement and most of us… I’m in that Gen X phase. I grew up with the internet coming around me, so I transitioned.
Renato But are you scared?
Michael No, I like the internet.
Renato No, are you scared that you’re not going to have a job tomorrow?
Michael Personally? No, because I want the machines to work for me.
Renato Yes. It’s all going to be like…
Michael I want to be in Hawaii.
Renato WALL-E.
Michael Exactly. We’re up getting fat on a spaceship.
Renato Exactly, with a big screen in front of us.
Michael Exactly, drinking our slushies, forget about the vegetarians and the vegetables. You guys saw WALL-E, right?
Renato The challenge for us here is that we tend to think about the future based on our current reality. Everything changed. The car that I drive today consumes a lot less gas than the car that I drove many years ago.
Michael Right. But, less gas is different than TAWS in February, putting out a blog post that says “the future does not need translators.”
Renato For French, Italian, German, Chinese and those languages.
Michael Ooh, now we’re getting into interesting stuff because it’s not… all of a sudden the Western world and those markets that are so established can be done by machine.
Renato No, it’s that the demand changes. You see price and all these things are based on supply and demand and scarcity. You have a lot of translators for Spanish and Chinese. It’s hard to differentiate in that market. We are in a business where language doesn’t matter. I say that translation is like toilet paper, it’s only important when it’s not there. So, we don’t know how much toilet paper costs. We use it every day – I assume – but you don’t know how much it costs.
Michael In some parts of the world there is lots of toilet paper and in other parts there’s none. So, where is toilet paper going to have the most value.
Renato I don’t know. In Japan it’s not that important, they have fantastic toilets there.
Michael Yes! We were just there last week.
Renato But, you tell me, what do you think is going to happen?
Michael I actually happen to agree. There is still going to be a need for translators. I believe that in my heart of hearts, probably from here until eternity – whatever that means. Yet, these places where we have most of the translators in the world, they’re not going to continue to do the same work because we will have the ability to have machines cover a part of what they do.

Now, if I were a translator today, that’s not my background, that’s not where I come from, I came from the business angle into our industry, but if I were a translator today I would be thinking about how to coach people in markets that are developing markets right now, for places in the world that, actually, don’t have a translation industry infrastructure, translation as a trade.
Renato That’s wrong. Let me tell you. It’s wrong because today knowledge is collective. So, it’s the famous story about Africa bypassing the landlines. They went straight from no phone to cell phone. It’s like bypassing computers. This whole generation that never had a computer before, they go straight to tablets and smart phones. So, there is not any more this concept that there are areas of the world that are behind and other areas that are advanced; we’re all at the same level.

I think that the key point that you need to keep in mind is that what is important is not the end product, it’s the process. There is always going to be need for somebody to manage this demand for converting content from one language to another if we don’t want to use translation. There is always going to be a need for somebody to receive a file or to press a button, making decisions.
Michael We’re talking about different roles. So, if we want to get into the LSP world I’m in full agreement with you. But, translators, their are major gaps that we have currently in being able to recruit talented translators. If I want to get a Chinese to Hindi translator that’s not an easy request; everything is English-centric. So, we have this huge gap in our industry right now… which is not historical… no, no, it’s not historical.
Renato It is historical.
Michael It is not because in Europe there was a tradition of French to German, French to Spanish; all these languages. And, as localization translation is spread around the world we’ve lost that part of our tradition. So, new markets, if you have a Chinese businessperson who wants to open a hotel in India, they have trouble, they are going to English to get to Hindi.
Renato Yes, but it’s a historical perspective. If it were 150 years ago they would go to French. If it was 1,000 years ago they would go to Latin. So, the power, at the time, the economic power of the historical period that you’re in is going to have the dominating language. Maybe, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, it’s going to be Chinese. There is a great book called The next 100 years that does some forecasting of what is going to happen in the next 100 years, geopolitically. They claim that the United States is going to be the dominant power, still, for 100 years.
Michael But, we will all swear in Chinese! I’ve seen the TV show Firefly and they speak in English but when they actually say cuss words they say them in Chinese.
Renato That’s the funny thing, I haven’t been to Israel but I heard that Hebrew is because it’s a sacred language they don’t have curse words so they curse in Arabic!
Michael Yeah. But, the one gap we have is everything is English-centric. The second gap we have is the long tail. I hear you saying we’re all in an equal playing field but I go back. I just mentioned this in a blog post I wrote last week that Anna Soares when she was speaking to LocWorld Berlin she said “let’s divide the room into one third over here and two thirds here. Imagine that this one third were the only third that spoke in English. Would this give them an advantage in business?” Think about the implications that has, that there are markets, there are people, there are people groups, that have absolutely no access to internet which means no access to education, no access to retail, limited access to those things. There is an opportunity to actually continue this craft from the beginning of time that we’ve had of translation into these places. It’s not a level playing field.
Renato Yes but it doesn’t matter, really.
Michael Why, because they don’t have money?
Renato No, it’s not a matter of money. We’re not talking about the economic details; we’re talking at a conceptual level. Transformations will happen; people will not starve; new jobs will be created, they will involve language. It’s going to be the post-editor; it’s going to be the information architect; there is going to be another name but the functions will still be done.
Michael in my research, in wondering, because we’ve talked a bit about translators, I’ve also heard from people who work for corporations. They have said that at the rate that LSPs are doing their job their departments are going to be put out of business. So, I’ve actually heard from people who are a project manager at Corporation X, “I’m concerned about my job because of how good LSPs are becoming”. How long have you heard this concern?
Renato Exactly. As every business, our business goes in cycles. So, there is a centralization cycle; then there is a decentralization cycle. There is a diversification cycle; there is a standardization cycle; and it’s like waves. So, all of a sudden, everybody is interested. Now we are in a wave of single sourcing where large companies have decided that working with three or four vendors is not as good as working with one vendor only. It’s great when we are winning; it’s awful when we’re losing. But, it’s a reality.

But, I bet that as soon as this generation of executives moves on and we change the leadership in the localization organization there is going to be someone that comes and says “Oh my God! This is so much risk; why are we putting all our eggs in one basket; the service is crap.” And you start having, again, this wave of two vendors, three vendors, four vendors.

So, everything, as everything in life, goes in cycles.
Michael You’ve heard this story before.
Renato I’ve heard this story before, several times, because I’ve started in this business very young. I was 23 years old when I started my company and, over time, in 35 years you can see several cycles. I see cycles of consolidation in the industry. It’s about every seven years there’s a movement of companies buying other companies and then there is a lull, and then it comes back again. So, there is a pricing cycle. There is a moment when you have scarcity of translators and huge demand and prices go up and then there is a moment when everybody is cost-conscious, there is a crisis, there is a recession and people start focusing on price again.

So, that’s the beauty of the business. If it was always the same, or always growing, it would be boring.
Michael For some. It depends on what role you have. If you’re a sales person if it’s always growing it’s not a bad thing. So, let’s play a little game. On Business Insider I found the story, the probability that robots will take your job in the next 20 years. What do you think is the top job that will be taken by robots in the next 20 years?
Renato Taxi driver.
Michael Taxi driver. It’s not even on the list!
Renato But with the driverless car…
Michael I completely agree with you that it should be on this list. Actually, commercial pilots are probably number – and I’m looking – number 8 or so; but taxi cab drivers are not even on the list. This list is already outdated.
Renato There you go.
Michael Cleaning. Hasn’t cleaning already been eliminated, right? Because we have Roomba in the robots. But, okay. Guess what number 1 is? I think it’s already been eliminated.
Renato Teachers.
Michael No! Teachers are not on here. Telemarketers is number 1. We are in election season here in the US and the number of robocalls that I get on a regular basis, so that seems like…
Renato And also the whole concept of call center because I call American Airlines and I talk to a robot most of the time.
Michael Number 2, the original major that I was in college – can you guess what that is?
Renato Priest!
Michael No, no, that was later. I chose, or that chose me, as they say. Accountants and auditors.
Renato Oh, we like that!
Michael It’s number 2, get rid of those folks. Number 3 for those of you who like to shop, retail salespeople because, eventually, you’ll just be able to walk in and say “hey, I’m looking for a blue dress; a nice necklace; a bracelet”. Number 4, and I think this one begins to start to hit home for us, that would be technical writers. So, if you start thinking about technical writers, we start thinking about that world, it’s a little…
Renato Well, if you think about technical writers, the beauty of this concept is that today you have robots that can write an article that you couldn’t tell if it was a human or robot based on the data of a sports game.
Michael Yes. You’ve seen the story about the baseball scores.
Renato Yes, they look at the scores, they look at the details, who scored what.
Michael So, there is a tradition in America of scoring a baseball game, it’s something that I’ve never learned but you actually get a special sheet of paper and you go through and have special shorthand that you use as you say “ in the seventh inning, the number 7 batter hit a double and he advanced the runner…”
Renato It’s like bowling.
Michael Well, you mean it’s boring? That’s why it’s a drinking sport. So, you have this elaborate scoring system and what people have been able to do is they score a baseball game and then input that into a computer which then, actually, outputs the news article. So, there are papers all over the US at this moment that the sports section has blurbs on the summary of the baseball game and it has absolutely no human to ever touch the summary.
Renato But, you can do that with basketball, you can do that with soccer, any sport.
Michael Yes. It’s fascinating. I discovered this after I had been reading these sports reports.
Renato And we have smart people at our company that know very well about this competition linguistic things and so what prevents that content to be immediately written in 70 languages? Because, the idea is the same, you get the rules, you get the words, and you create an immediate content write.
Michael The next one I’ll mention is real estate agents, we will no longer need them. I love my real estate agent but I think “we’re over”.
Renato They don’t create much value.
Michael You can sort of do the comps, and that’s pretty easy.
Renato The only thing is there is an element of bureaucracy of government regulation that makes them, in a way, necessary. You need an inspection, you need this, you need that, and you need to coordinate that whole dance. But, it could be automated.
Michael In some markets it is absolutely controlled. You had an apartment in Brno, Czech Republic, was it a government flat? I actually have no idea how that works. But, it’s a highly regulated part of society, unlike the US where you pretty much are dealing with owners.
Renato No, but I think it’s more regulated in the US when you are buying a house, it’s essentially you have all this paperwork which is literally, probably, one meter or three feet tall, that you need to sign, disclose and promise and, whatever. That’s the only part. And that’s one of the things.

So, if you want to save your job, put a lot of regulation around it. That’s the way. Buy a politician and make sure that it is regulated; that you require certificates and authorizations and disclaimers and non-disclosures.
Michael So, we’re in trouble in localization because we’re unregulated.
Renato Absolutely. And that’s the beauty of this business.
Michael It is but it’s also the danger because we’re not protected from innovation and advancing.
Renato But, you see, there’s a big discussion going on in Brazil, my home country, there is a minister that wants to eliminate the need for sworn translators. The profession of a sworn translator, which is a person that has…
Michael The church is that powerful, a minister?
Renato Yes.
Michael A governmental minister!
Renato A governmental minister, a secretary in the United States, secretary of state. So, what they are trying to do is they want to eliminate a law that was passed in 1950 that says that a person to issue official translations needs to pass a test that happens every 20 years and he gets an authorization, a delegation from the president of the country, to sign translations and their translations are official. This has nothing to do with quality, this has nothing to do with productivity, it’s just bureaucracy.

So, there is this program that is called A Simpler Brazil and they want to eliminate a lot of the bureaucracy that exists. Of course, the sworn translators are going crazy “oh my God!”
Michael But there are a bunch of freelance translators who are super-excited about this.
Renato No, there aren’t because they want to be…
Michael Oh, they want to be sworn translators.
Renato because they think that part of the profession is protected.
Michael Brazil.
Renato No, it’s not Brazil. I was at a conference in Iceland and there were two translators from Denmark where the same phenomenon happened. They were complaining that now any translator can do the translation and they just need to go to a notary and there is a lot of bureaucracy and so on. Then, she showed a document from the time that the profession of a sworn translator was created in Denmark. It dated back to the 1600s. So, we are trying to protect, in 2016, a profession that existed in 1600. What else do we do the same way?
Michael That’s called job security. So, one of the websites I discovered, if you’re concerned about your job security and you’re listening to this podcast, we do have a section of notes on our website. You can go to www.mpr.org, Planet Money has an actual interaction site that says “will your job be done by a machine?” And you can go through and actually put in the requirements of your job and it will give you the percentage likelihood of whether your job will be done by machine. I’m actually too scared to do this so we’ll just let our listeners go and they can let us know.
Renato But, you see, the thing about just following blindly what the press says is dangerous because you mentioned Business Insider at the beginning of the conversation. They also put out a list of the fastest growing industries, the best jobs in the future and translator was there, number 3 or 4.
Michael Well, translator is not on the list of probability robots will take over your job in the next 20 years.
Renato Because they have already taken over.
Michael Okay Renato. So, let’s give our final thoughts on this idea of “will you have a job?”
Renato I think that you will have a job if everybody has a job and I think that…
Michael You qualified that, “if everyone has a job”, what do you mean?
Renato Because in the WALL-E scenario where nobody works, there is this whole discussion of providing a minimum income to people so that they don’t need to have a job because the concept of the employment society will become obsolete. That’s a possibility. I don’t know if it is five years, 10 years, 20 years but there is a difference between having a job and having work. I think that there will be work, I think there will be need for the activities involved in the language business today, in one shape or another. I think there is going to be sales so don’t be afraid. But, it’s not going to be the same way it is today because my job today looks nothing like it looked 35 years ago.
Michael And I think my final thoughts are I agree with you in the fact I think our jobs are going to look different. I think leisure is important; I think we all need to have aspects of leisure in our life; but I think work is actually very closely connected into what it means to be a human being. So, whether a specific job will exist 10 years from now, 10 months from now, I don’t know, I’m not a futurist, I don’t really care about making those bets but I do think we will be working. So, I think if you’re interested…
Renato No, that’s…
Michael You don’t want to work?
Renato That’s a very American puritanical idea.
Michael Oh my gosh! You just laid out my background, American puritan, so perfect!
Renato And I’m a Latin American im-puritan. So, the biggest… if you think historically, some of the greatest findings in history were done by people that never worked in their lives. The great chemical findings were noblemen in France or philosophers, or people who didn’t work for a living.
Michael So, we’re going to do a podcast on what it means to work because I think we might need to get to that point but, I think, there’s a difference between philosophy and leisure. I think philosophy is very hard work; I think leisure is an activity where you learn to rest from your work. So, I think we’re going to continue to work; I think philosophers work; I think nurses, doctors…
Renato My biggest problem is that I have been in business for many, many years but I don’t think I’ve worked a single day in my life because I love what I do and that’s not work. I get paid to do what I like. So, how do you beat that?
Michael I think work is something that is embedded in creation, that we are actually meant to love. And when we don’t love it, it’s broken.
Renato That’s a job.
Michael That’s a job. So, we all work, but some of us have jobs. And so, am I going to have a job tomorrow? I kind of hope not but I have a lot of work to do. Thanks for listening.

End of conversation

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