Machine learning applied to translation is poised to have a huge impact on travellers, Google told the Phocuswright conference in Miami this week.
Oliver Heckmann, vice president of engineering at the search giant, used an example of him speaking in German to French emergency services who did not speak German while on holiday and being understood.
He said the application of machine learning technology has turned Google Translate into a very powerful and real-time service.
“Language is a very obvious obstacle or friction point when users are travelling,” he said.
Heckmann said over the last five years machine learning and artificial intelligence have “transformed the way computer science works.”
“Some are calling what we are seeing now as the beginning of a second machine age. This is not limited to machines, it’s impacting all parts of our lives.”
Heckmann said AI – making machines intelligent – gets used more as a marketing term about IT products and does “not really carry any meaning” but he said machine learning is the more important term.
“It’s taming computational power and data and have machines learn from themselves. It has seen a big break through in the last five or six years.”
This step change has been brought about by the application of “deep neural networks” that emulate how the human brain works.
In translation this is allowing much faster processing without the need to hire lots of linguists and work on each language pairing because the technology is capable of learning about the rules and structure of language so that it can apply this automatically.
This means machine translation can be done more accurately, less expensively, at scale and at the speed of conversation and it can also deal with different dialects and accents.
“I’m very confident within the next decade machine translation will be at the same level as human translation quality. That’s a game changer for how people experience the world when they are travelling.”
Heckmann set out three other areas where he sees machine learning being applied to travel. The first was price insights and recommendations.
This will give customers the assurance that they have got the best price, or that they would be better off waiting for prices to fall, improving conversion.
Google says its users cite this among the most loved features that it offers on its own shopping platforms.
Heckmann said this data can be used to help firms decide whether to offer a time-limited promotion or a price guarantee with the promise of money back if it is found cheaper.
The second area Google sees machine learning being important is in customer service and improving the contact centre experience.
Natural language recognition means that machines can take the initial inquiry and then decide how to proceed, and it can also help human operatives have the information at hand when on the call.
The third area was online marketing. Machine learning can predict click through rates and can be used to determine the optimal placements of ads.
Heckmann said this allows firms to adapt their bidding strategy to be more intelligence and effective.
“Many of our partners are benefitting from that, using machine learning to drive growth in online marketing.”
He added: “Machine learning is making us reinvent all of our products. It is allowing us to build new products which were literally unthinkable just a few years ago.
“It makes out products more natural and more useful to the user. You can do the same thing. The technology is available for everybody to use.
“With respect to machine learning we are there. It’s changing the world of computer science, the world of travel and many other parts of our lives.
“How much can we do with it? We are still in the early phases. I’m pretty sure that the best ideas are actually still to come and maybe they are coming from someone in this room.”