7. Theory Becomes Product
Until then, the neural-translation team had been only three people — Schuster, Wu and Chen — but with Hughes’s support, the broader team began to coalesce. They met under Schuster’s command on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. in a corner room of the Brain building called Quartz Lake. The meeting was generally attended by a rotating cast of more than a dozen people. When Hughes or Corrado were there, they were usually the only native English speakers. The engineers spoke Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, Russian, Arabic, German and Japanese, though they mostly spoke in their own efficient pidgin and in math. It is not always totally clear, at Google, who is running a meeting, but in Schuster’s case there was no ambiguity.
The steps they needed to take, even then, were not wholly clear. “This story is a lot about uncertainty — uncertainty throughout the whole process,” Schuster told me at one point. “The software, the data, the hardware, the people. It was like” — he extended his long, gracile arms, slightly bent at the elbows, from his narrow shoulders — “swimming in a big sea of mud, and you can only see this far.” He held out his hand eight inches in front of his chest. “There’s a goal somewhere, and maybe it’s there.”
Most of Google’s conference rooms have videochat monitors, which when idle display extremely high-resolution oversaturated public Google+ photos of a sylvan dreamscape or the northern lights or the Reichstag. Schuster gestured toward one of the panels, which showed a crystalline still of the Washington Monument at night.
“The view from outside is that everyone has binoculars and can see ahead so far.”
The theoretical work to get them to this point had already been painstaking and drawn-out, but the attempt to turn it into a viable product — the part that academic scientists might dismiss as “mere” engineering — was no less difficult. For one thing, they needed to make sure that they were training on good data. Google’s billions of words of training “reading” were mostly made up of complete sentences of moderate complexity, like the sort of thing you might find in Hemingway. Some of this is in the public domain: The original Rosetta Stone of statistical machine translation was millions of pages of the complete bilingual records of the Canadian Parliament. Much of it, however, was culled from 10 years of collected data, including human translations that were crowdsourced from enthusiastic respondents. The team had in their storehouse about 97 million unique English “words.” But once they removed the emoticons, and the misspellings, and the redundancies, they had a working vocabulary of only around 160,000.
Then you had to refocus on what users actually wanted to translate, which frequently had very little to do with reasonable language as it is employed. Many people, Google had found, don’t look to the service to translate full, complex sentences; they translate weird little shards of language. If you wanted the network to be able to handle the stream of user queries, you had to be sure to orient it in that direction. The network was very sensitive to the data it was trained on. As Hughes put it to me at one point: “The neural-translation system is learning everything it can. It’s like a toddler. ‘Oh, Daddy says that word when he’s mad!’ ” He laughed. “You have to be careful.”
More than anything, though, they needed to make sure that the whole thing was fast and reliable enough that their users wouldn’t notice. In February, the translation of a 10-word sentence took 10 seconds. They could never introduce anything that slow. The Translate team began to conduct latency experiments on a small percentage of users, in the form of faked delays, to identify tolerance. They found that a translation that took twice as long, or even five times as long, wouldn’t be registered. An eightfold slowdown would. They didn’t need to make sure this was true across all languages. In the case of a high-traffic language, like French or Chinese, they could countenance virtually no slowdown. For something more obscure, they knew that users wouldn’t be so scared off by a slight delay if they were getting better quality. They just wanted to prevent people from giving up and switching over to some competitor’s service.
Schuster, for his part, admitted he just didn’t know if they ever could make it fast enough. He remembers a conversation in the microkitchen during which he turned to Chen and said, “There must be something we don’t know to make it fast enough, but I don’t know what it could be.”
He did know, though, that they needed more computers — “G.P.U.s,” graphics processors reconfigured for neural networks — for training.
Hughes went to Schuster to ask what he thought. “Should we ask for a thousand G.P.U.s?”
Schuster said, “Why not 2,000?”
In the more distant, speculative future, machine translation was perhaps the first step toward a general computational facility with human language.
Ten days later, they had the additional 2,000 processors.
By April, the original lineup of three had become more than 30 people — some of them, like Le, on the Brain side, and many from Translate. In May, Hughes assigned a kind of provisional owner to each language pair, and they all checked their results into a big shared spreadsheet of performance evaluations. At any given time, at least 20 people were running their own independent weeklong experiments and dealing with whatever unexpected problems came up. One day a model, for no apparent reason, started taking all the numbers it came across in a sentence and discarding them. There were months when it was all touch and go. “People were almost yelling,” Schuster said.
By late spring, the various pieces were coming together. The team introduced something called a “word-piece model,” a “coverage penalty,” “length normalization.” Each part improved the results, Schuster says, by maybe a few percentage points, but in aggregate they had significant effects. Once the model was standardized, it would be only a single multilingual model that would improve over time, rather than the 150 different models that Translate currently used. Still, the paradox — that a tool built to further generalize, via learning machines, the process of automation required such an extraordinary amount of concerted human ingenuity and effort — was not lost on them. So much of what they did was just gut. How many neurons per layer did you use? 1,024 or 512? How many layers? How many sentences did you run through at a time? How long did you train for?
“We did hundreds of experiments,” Schuster told me, “until we knew that we could stop the training after one week. You’re always saying: When do we stop? How do I know I’m done? You never know you’re done. The machine-learning mechanism is never perfect. You need to train, and at some point you have to stop. That’s the very painful nature of this whole system. It’s hard for some people. It’s a little bit an art — where you put your brush to make it nice. It comes from just doing it. Some people are better, some worse.”
By May, the Brain team understood that the only way they were ever going to make the system fast enough to implement as a product was if they could run it on T.P.U.s, the special-purpose chips that Dean had called for. As Chen put it: “We did not even know if the code would work. But we did know that without T.P.U.s, it definitely wasn’t going to work.” He remembers going to Dean one on one to plead, “Please reserve something for us.” Dean had reserved them. The T.P.U.s, however, didn’t work right out of the box. Wu spent two months sitting next to someone from the hardware team in an attempt to figure out why. They weren’t just debugging the model; they were debugging the chip. The neural-translation project would be proof of concept for the whole infrastructural investment.
One Wednesday in June, the meeting in Quartz Lake began with murmurs about a Baidu paper that had recently appeared on the discipline’s chief online forum. Schuster brought the room to order. “Yes, Baidu came out with a paper. It feels like someone looking through our shoulder — similar architecture, similar results.” The company’s BLEU scores were essentially what Google achieved in its internal tests in February and March. Le didn’t seem ruffled; his conclusion seemed to be that it was a sign Google was on the right track. “It is very similar to our system,” he said with quiet approval.
The Google team knew that they could have published their results earlier and perhaps beaten their competitors, but as Schuster put it: “Launching is more important than publishing. People say, ‘Oh, I did something first,’ but who cares, in the end?”
This did, however, make it imperative that they get their own service out first and better. Hughes had a fantasy that they wouldn’t even inform their users of the switch. They would just wait and see if social media lit up with suspicions about the vast improvements.
“We don’t want to say it’s a new system yet,” he told me at 5:36 p.m. two days after Labor Day, one minute before they rolled out Chinese-to-English to 10 percent of their users, without telling anyone. “We want to make sure it works. The ideal is that it’s exploding on Twitter: ‘Have you seen how awesome Google Translate got?’ ”
8. A Celebration
The only two reliable measures of time in the seasonless Silicon Valley are the rotations of seasonal fruit in the microkitchens — from the pluots of midsummer to the Asian pears and Fuyu persimmons of early fall — and the zigzag of technological progress. On an almost uncomfortably warm Monday afternoon in late September, the team’s paper was at last released. It had an almost comical 31 authors. The next day, the members of Brain and Translate gathered to throw themselves a little celebratory reception in the Translate microkitchen. The rooms in the Brain building, perhaps in homage to the long winters of their diaspora, are named after Alaskan locales; the Translate building’s theme is Hawaiian.
The Hawaiian microkitchen has a slightly grainy beach photograph on one wall, a small lei-garlanded thatched-hut service counter with a stuffed parrot at the center and ceiling fixtures fitted to resemble paper lanterns. Two sparse histograms of bamboo poles line the sides, like the posts of an ill-defended tropical fort. Beyond the bamboo poles, glass walls and doors open onto rows of identical gray desks on either side. That morning had seen the arrival of new hooded sweatshirts to honor 10 years of Translate, and many team members went over to the party from their desks in their new gear. They were in part celebrating the fact that their decade of collective work was, as of that day, en route to retirement. At another institution, these new hoodies might thus have become a costume of bereavement, but the engineers and computer scientists from both teams all seemed pleased.
‘It was like swimming in a big sea of mud, and you can only see this far.’ Schuster held out his hand eight inches in front of his chest.
Google’s neural translation was at last working. By the time of the party, the company’s Chinese-English test had already processed 18 million queries. One engineer on the Translate team was running around with his phone out, trying to translate entire sentences from Chinese to English using Baidu’s alternative. He crowed with glee to anybody who would listen. “If you put in more than two characters at once, it times out!” (Baidu says this problem has never been reported by users.)
When word began to spread, over the following weeks, that Google had introduced neural translation for Chinese to English, some people speculated that it was because that was the only language pair for which the company had decent results. Everybody at the party knew that the reality of their achievement would be clear in November. By then, however, many of them would be on to other projects.
Hughes cleared his throat and stepped in front of the tiki bar. He wore a faded green polo with a rumpled collar, lightly patterned across the midsection with dark bands of drying sweat. There had been last-minute problems, and then last-last-minute problems, including a very big measurement error in the paper and a weird punctuation-related bug in the system. But everything was resolved — or at least sufficiently resolved for the moment. The guests quieted. Hughes ran efficient and productive meetings, with a low tolerance for maundering or side conversation, but he was given pause by the gravity of the occasion. He acknowledged that he was, perhaps, stretching a metaphor, but it was important to him to underline the fact, he began, that the neural translation project itself represented a “collaboration between groups that spoke different languages.”
Their neural-translation project, he continued, represented a “step function forward” — that is, a discontinuous advance, a vertical leap rather than a smooth curve. The relevant translation had been not just between the two teams but from theory into reality. He raised a plastic demi-flute of expensive-looking Champagne.
“To communication,” he said, “and cooperation!”
The engineers assembled looked around at one another and gave themselves over to little circumspect whoops and applause.
Jeff Dean stood near the center of the microkitchen, his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched slightly inward, with Corrado and Schuster. Dean saw that there was some diffuse preference that he contribute to the observance of the occasion, and he did so in a characteristically understated manner, with a light, rapid, concise addendum.
What they had shown, Dean said, was that they could do two major things at once: “Do the research and get it in front of, I dunno, half a billion people.”
Everyone laughed, not because it was an exaggeration but because it wasn’t.
Epilogue: Machines Without Ghosts
Perhaps the most famous historic critique of artificial intelligence, or the claims made on its behalf, implicates the question of translation. The Chinese Room argument was proposed in 1980 by the Berkeley philosopher John Searle. In Searle’s thought experiment, a monolingual English speaker sits alone in a cell. An unseen jailer passes him, through a slot in the door, slips of paper marked with Chinese characters. The prisoner has been given a set of tables and rules in English for the composition of replies. He becomes so adept with these instructions that his answers are soon “absolutely indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers.” Should the unlucky prisoner be said to “understand” Chinese? Searle thought the answer was obviously not. This metaphor for a computer, Searle later wrote, exploded the claim that “the appropriately programmed digital computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the sense that human beings have minds.”
For the Google Brain team, though, or for nearly everyone else who works in machine learning in Silicon Valley, that view is entirely beside the point. This doesn’t mean they’re just ignoring the philosophical question. It means they have a fundamentally different view of the mind. Unlike Searle, they don’t assume that “consciousness” is some special, numinously glowing mental attribute — what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called the “ghost in the machine.” They just believe instead that the complex assortment of skills we call “consciousness” has randomly emerged from the coordinated activity of many different simple mechanisms. The implication is that our facility with what we consider the higher registers of thought are no different in kind from what we’re tempted to perceive as the lower registers. Logical reasoning, on this account, is seen as a lucky adaptation; so is the ability to throw and catch a ball. Artificial intelligence is not about building a mind; it’s about the improvement of tools to solve problems. As Corrado said to me on my very first day at Google, “It’s not about what a machine ‘knows’ or ‘understands’ but what it ‘does,’ and — more importantly — what it doesn’t do yet.”
Where you come down on “knowing” versus “doing” has real cultural and social implications. At the party, Schuster came over to me to express his frustration with the paper’s media reception. “Did you see the first press?” he asked me. He paraphrased a headline from that morning, blocking it word by word with his hand as he recited it: GOOGLE SAYS A.I. TRANSLATION IS INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM HUMANS’. Over the final weeks of the paper’s composition, the team had struggled with this; Schuster often repeated that the message of the paper was “It’s much better than it was before, but not as good as humans.” He had hoped it would be clear that their efforts weren’t about replacing people but helping them.
And yet the rise of machine learning makes it more difficult for us to carve out a special place for us. If you believe, with Searle, that there is something special about human “insight,” you can draw a clear line that separates the human from the automated. If you agree with Searle’s antagonists, you can’t. It is understandable why so many people cling fast to the former view. At a 2015 M.I.T. conference about the roots of artificial intelligence, Noam Chomsky was asked what he thought of machine learning. He pooh-poohed the whole enterprise as mere statistical prediction, a glorified weather forecast. Even if neural translation attained perfect functionality, it would reveal nothing profound about the underlying nature of language. It could never tell you if a pronoun took the dative or the accusative case. This kind of prediction makes for a good tool to accomplish our ends, but it doesn’t succeed by the standards of furthering our understanding of why things happen the way they do. A machine can already detect tumors in medical scans better than human radiologists, but the machine can’t tell you what’s causing the cancer.
Then again, can the radiologist?
Medical diagnosis is one field most immediately, and perhaps unpredictably, threatened by machine learning. Radiologists are extensively trained and extremely well paid, and we think of their skill as one of professional insight — the highest register of thought. In the past year alone, researchers have shown not only that neural networks can find tumors in medical images much earlier than their human counterparts but also that machines can even make such diagnoses from the texts of pathology reports. What radiologists do turns out to be something much closer to predictive pattern-matching than logical analysis. They’re not telling you what caused the cancer; they’re just telling you it’s there.
Once you’ve built a robust pattern-matching apparatus for one purpose, it can be tweaked in the service of others. One Translate engineer took a network he put together to judge artwork and used it to drive an autonomous radio-controlled car. A network built to recognize a cat can be turned around and trained on CT scans — and on infinitely more examples than even the best doctor could ever review. A neural network built to translate could work through millions of pages of documents of legal discovery in the tiniest fraction of the time it would take the most expensively credentialed lawyer. The kinds of jobs taken by automatons will no longer be just repetitive tasks that were once — unfairly, it ought to be emphasized — associated with the supposed lower intelligence of the uneducated classes. We’re not only talking about three and a half million truck drivers who may soon lack careers. We’re talking about inventory managers, economists, financial advisers, real estate agents. What Brain did over nine months is just one example of how quickly a small group at a large company can automate a task nobody ever would have associated with machines.
The most important thing happening in Silicon Valley right now is not disruption. Rather, it’s institution-building — and the consolidation of power — on a scale and at a pace that are both probably unprecedented in human history. Brain has interns; it has residents; it has “ninja” classes to train people in other departments. Everywhere there are bins of free bike helmets, and free green umbrellas for the two days a year it rains, and little fruit salads, and nap pods, and shared treadmill desks, and massage chairs, and random cartons of high-end pastries, and places for baby-clothes donations, and two-story climbing walls with scheduled instructors, and reading groups and policy talks and variegated support networks. The recipients of these major investments in human cultivation — for they’re far more than perks for proles in some digital salt mine — have at hand the power of complexly coordinated servers distributed across 13 data centers on four continents, data centers that draw enough electricity to light up large cities.
But even enormous institutions like Google will be subject to this wave of automation; once machines can learn from human speech, even the comfortable job of the programmer is threatened. As the party in the tiki bar was winding down, a Translate engineer brought over his laptop to show Hughes something. The screen swirled and pulsed with a vivid, kaleidoscopic animation of brightly colored spheres in long looping orbits that periodically collapsed into nebulae before dispersing once more.
Hughes recognized what it was right away, but I had to look closely before I saw all the names — of people and files. It was an animation of the history of 10 years of changes to the Translate code base, every single buzzing and blooming contribution by every last team member. Hughes reached over gently to skip forward, from 2006 to 2008 to 2015, stopping every once in a while to pause and remember some distant campaign, some ancient triumph or catastrophe that now hurried by to be absorbed elsewhere or to burst on its own. Hughes pointed out how often Jeff Dean’s name expanded here and there in glowing spheres.
Hughes called over Corrado, and they stood transfixed. To break the spell of melancholic nostalgia, Corrado, looking a little wounded, looked up and said, “So when do we get to delete it?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hughes said. “The new code base is going to grow. Everything grows.”
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a computer used in space travel. A computer was used to guide Apollo missions — not the “Apollo shuttle.” (There was no such shuttle.)
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