Indiana University cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter had a lifelong acquaintance with and admiration for the Swedish language and with the help of Swedish friends, became conversant with it. That led him in turn to try an experiment on machine translation programs such as Google Translate and DeepL. At Inference Review, he tells us, “although — or perhaps because — these programs have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, I greatly enjoy discovering and poking fun at their many unpredictable weaknesses.”
Thus the author of author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) constructed a paragraph of pure nonsense in made-up Swedish, something like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which plays around similarly with English:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Most of the words don’t exist and the sentence has no meaning. But it is phrased as grammatically correct English verse.
On August 15, he fed it to Google Translate and asked for the English…
DeepL and the Chinese translation giant Baidu came up with entirely different complete nonsense. The comparisons of utter nonsense are breathtaking.
Well, in fairness, the machine translation systems could not have noticed that the original paragraph was meaningless either. A human translator, by contrast, would pick up the phone…
He draws out the significance:
And yet they were all produced by sober, no-nonsense, deadpan, tone-deaf, and stone-dead programs that have nonetheless been trumpeted in many prestigious and influential publications — such as the New York Times, the Economist, and others — as being astonishingly powerful and supremely accurate translators.
AI is apparently blind to what would be obvious even to an adolescent human, when it comes to recognizing language versus nonsense. A similar distinction arises in the field of cryptography, although the process of recognition is more subtle. In a conversation I had with a retired U.S. cryptographer, he said that it’s possible to discern whether an encoded message contains an intelligent message or is just gibberish. The difference has to do with our understanding of and familiarity with language as a medium of communication between conscious and intelligent minds.