Blockchain and bitcoin have been around for more than a decade now, but most of us mortals are still struggling to understand how all this technology comes together, without even considering its implications for the language services industry. Let’s give it a try.
This technology was born to support the infrastructure needed for the transactions of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin or ethereum. Blockchain and bitcoin were created by Satoshi Nakamoto (which is a fake name). No one really knows who is behind this invention, Satoshi Nakamoto being the Banksy of cryptocurrencies in 2008.
Blockchain is a list of records or a ledger. The ledger is public and permanent. Anything of value can be transferred from one party to another and recorded in it, generating a trustful system. The data recorded in the ledger cannot be changed or altered because it would require changing the entire blockchain, so it is reputed to be safe.
This digitally stored information is referred to as blocks. The blockchain peer-to-peer database is synchronized, decentralized, and distributed. There is no hard copy of the database in any specific location, as it happens with traditional databases. All users have the same level of privileges in the network. This presents a potential scalability issue for blockchain. If a database becomes gigantic, more powerful machines and more energy will be necessary to create nodes for it. Still, we are not there yet.
Let’s look at an example of the main industry taking advantage of blockchain: cryptocurrencies.
Suzie wants to transfer 100 bitcoins to Anthony. She orders the transaction and it is broadcasted to the public network in a completely anonymous way. Although users in the bitcoin network cannot see Suzie and Anthony’s names, their transaction is identified by a unique code, called a hash, which can be traced. Then, bitcoin community users, or miners, need to validate the transaction. This means verifying that nothing illegal is going on such as double spending. Double spending means that you are using the same cryptocurrency more than once, in theory leading you to become a crypto-millionaire. However, the system prevents you from doing so.
Once the transaction is verified, it becomes a block. Then, the community needs to come to a consensus to add the block to the ledger. Each block of transactional data is “chained” to the last block that was recorded in the ledger. It’s then given a cryptographic hash, or a digital signature, so that both blocks are linked and the integrity of all previous blocks is confirmed. This way, the transaction between Suzie and Anthony is recorded in a trustful, immutable, and permanent way in this public, decentralized, and open database. Each block comes with a private, encrypted key or password that is necessary to access the information in that specific block. For deeper and more technical information on blockchain and bitcoin, read this article.
Cryptocurrency transactions are the main industry benefiting from blockchain at the moment, but there are other applications of this technology, such as smart contracts.
These are executed without human interaction when some previously programmed conditions or rules are met. This allows the execution of a contract without third parties being involved and prevents any party from committing fraud or change conditions after an agreement has been reached. The use cases for smart contracts are endless. For example, in the supply chain, these contracts can be used to set specific contract conditions that are transparent and available to all parties. They can also be used to manage ownership rights during the supply chain process and track the location of goods and products. Once supplies are delivered and verified, the payment can be done automatically. This simplifies the process and eliminates unnecessary costs.
Attempts have also been made to use blockchain for online voting, which could be a good idea to increase voter engagement. For example, in 2018, West Virginia offered an electronic ballot system based on blockchain technology for midterm elections. The online voting was aimed at citizens living overseas, in the military, or in the Merchant Marines. However, security remains a natural concern in that area.
What does blockchain have to do with the language services industry? Some companies are already using this technology.
One Hour Translation claims to use blockchain technology to share translation memory (TM) content on demand, in order to improve neural machine translation (NMT) results. This way, the translated content that might be confidential would only be available to clients upon payment and the machine translation solution would be tailored depending on client needs. Another usage of this technology for this company is traceability of quality. All steps in the translation process are recorded in a ledger with metadata, such as the translator’s name, date, language pair, etc. Then, if a quality issue is spotted, the client can access the specific block where the information is stored and check what happened. They can also decide which translators/reviewers they would like to have on their projects based on that information.
Exfluency is a language marketplace based on blockchain technology. They are not a language services provider (LSP) per se, but define themselves as “a marketplace that facilitates the buying and selling of multilingual communication.” They have created their own Initial Coin Offering or ICO (i. e. their own bitcoin) called XFL. Their CEO, Robert Etches, was interviewed on the Globally Speaking podcast (listen to the entire conversation here) and claimed that Exfluency aims to be a gateway of language communication, instead of the gatekeeper. They have put together NMT and blockchain technology, using blockchain for different purposes:
1) to leave out any middlemen, i.e. translation companies;
2) to track the quality of translations and improve reliability, so that buyers can decide which linguists to hire for their projects;
3) to streamline micropayments using their cryptocurrency;
4) to reward linguists for their work enhancing (that is, post-editing) machine translated strings.
They say that CAT tools won’t be used in this new model. Translators will be paid with XFL tokens for uploading any bilingual data into the system. Once uploaded, the bilingual data belong to the Exfluency community, so anybody translating there can use it. Then, linguists can also enhance or post-edit NMT-generated content when required, and they will get paid with fiat money (i.e. dollars, euros or any other non-cryptocurrency) for that service. According to Etches, with this model they, “Want to be able to grow that 50-billion dollar [translation] market to maybe 75 billion.”
Other companies such as Kolin are also looking at a similar model – creating their own ICO called Kolins to pay translators for their work. This results in a crowdsourcing model, since translators are volunteers and paid with Kolins and not fiat money. They also offer professional services that are charged differently to clients.
Let’s sum up what blockchain offers to the language services industry:
It’s a great technology to be applied to TM or MT management. Blockchain could also potentially solve the issues of copyright in audiovisual or literary translation. One of the main concerns in these industries is how to use CAT tools or even MT in a product that generates royalties for the authors of the translation. With a TM or MT blockchain system, the authorship of each string could be traced, allowing that person to receive payment for their contribution to the audiovisual or literary piece. This way, the process would be more efficient without being unfair to authors of translations.
Even if blockchain is an embryonic technology, as far as the language services industry is concerned, we can still envisage multiple applications and future perspectives for it.
According to Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani from Harvard Business Review, it will take decades to adopt blockchain technology. Also, there are not many successful use cases yet, so probably only the most visionary business people (or those willing to bet on it) will pioneer the blockchain revolution in the language industry.
The key, as with any other technological advancement, will be how to engage stakeholders, such as translators and buyers, within this new model. How is blockchain better for everybody? The language services industry is already undergoing a transformation due to MT and artificial intelligence. Perhaps blockchain technology will be the glue that makes all the disparate technology come together, creating a new and exciting environment.
So, going forward, make sure you are in the loop!
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New disciplines are continually being created as the way we do business evolves. Trends pop up. Some only for a moment, others for the long-run. Entire market niches come into being seemingly out of thin air. Although it’s not always easy to know where these trends come from or where they are headed, the truth of the matter is that they burst forth in a flurry into our daily lives, and suddenly everyone is talking about them.