A Bot Topic: The debate continues over the role of AI interpretation in the BSL access industry

A conversation about the place of artificial intelligence in the British Sign Language (BSL) interpreting profession continues to grow, raising difficult and contentious questions about ethics, interpreter numbers and sustainability.

In his latest feature film for The lame chickenLiam O’Dell studies what role – if any – bots and AI could play in the future of interpretation.

“Hello, I’m Cassie, [a] BSL interpreter helping the deaf community”, signs the avatar. He appears to me in a video on my Instagram feed earlier this month and naturally piques my interest. It comes from the company Robotica and is an artificial intelligence solution for interpreting British Sign Language (BSL).

Of course, AI has the potential to arouse a wide range of skepticism – from existential and apocalyptic prophecies to terminator-like a machine wiping out humanity, to the more current concern over its intrusion into modern industries such as retail and e-commerce. It was only a matter of time before such a conversation took its place in the interpreting industry.

A significant intervention came in 2018, when the World Federation of the Deaf and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters raised concerns about signature avatars. in a joint statement.

“Computer-generated machine translations cannot render culturally appropriate translations the way live interpretations from a human sign language interpreter would,” it reads. “Work in this area has seen great improvements with the image quality and appearance of signature avatars.

“While technology has advanced and offers real potential for the wider use of signature avatars, these computer-based products do not exceed the quality and natural skills provided by properly trained and qualified interpreters and translators,” he continues. “People who are fluent in a sign language and are skilled in presenting information on particular topics not only use hands, arms, shoulders and torso, head movements, facial expression and mouth, but also include cultural information if necessary to convey the intended meaning contained in a message.

Via email, Robotica founder Adrian Pickering is candid in his assessment of the future of AI in interpretation. “Humans will always be preferable,” he writes. “Artificial intelligence will never deliver empathy and trust. No one wants a computer to read their medical diagnosis or explain a court decision.

“Only when no human signer is available, or when human signing is not possible, should our AI signers be used,” adds Pickering. “We never foresee a time when AI will replace human translators and interpreters.”

But at the same time, the low number of performers is no secret, and for many it could certainly be higher. The current enrollment figures listed on the National Registers of Communication Professionals Working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) website says there are only 1,391 sign language interpreters on its register in the UK.

“Few people are media-literate and even fewer are ready to be on television,” Pickering continues. “These translators are working hard and the demand is increasing.

“We speak frequently with just about every major TV company in the UK, and they really want to put BSL everywhere – just like they do with subtitles – but they just can’t find enough people,” he said. “This means that only a small part of television is translated. This also limits the shows offered.

According to Pickering, AI signing using an avatar offers new possibilities. “For example, AI can sometimes make translations easier to follow. We can produce digital signatures that look like characters from movies or dramas,” he explains, “or have avatar clothes that change colored depending on the character speaking – as often happens with subtitles.

“We don’t ask people to choose between human and AI translations. Why would we? Humans will win every time,” Pickering points out. “We offer people the choice between AI translations and subtitles. A choice between AI translations and no translation. »

A choice that may be difficult to make for some Deaf people. For Belgian academic Dr Maartje De Meulder – who just a few weeks ago gave a presentation on computer-assisted interpreting to the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (EFSLI) – there is what she described as a “critical need” to meet certain “urgent needs”. questions”.

“Who invents technologies and what is their motivation to develop them? How is data collected to make machines learn? Who evaluates the results and how? written in a 2021 article on the ethics of sign language technologies published by the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas. “Is there a real demand from communities? Who are the end users and who decides? Who benefits from these technologies and who risks being left behind?

“What are the current and potential future applications of these technologies,” continues Dr. De Meulder. “How will language rights keep pace with the development of language technologies? What are the ideologies behind these technologies?

It is this last question that the researcher emphasizes in the conclusion of the document. “What has been done technologically so far is very promising,” she writes, “but if we continue on the same path, there is a risk that the technologies ultimately developed will not be voluntarily adopted by end users. . This use is important, because the more “we” use AI, the better it will become. However, one must ask who is this “we” – who is language technology for and why?

Sign language interpreters are certainly not the “end users” here, argues Dr. De Meulder. “Nor should they be seen as the benchmark for language use. Placing interpreters at the center of Deaf people’s lives (a constructed addiction) comes from a biased, hearing-centric view of communication.

They are, she explains, deaf people, and calls on developers of new sign language interpreting technologies to include a “very diverse group” when co-designing such software.

The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) also mentions the end user in their response to a request for comment. “Ultimately, it’s up to those end users whether or not they want to use it,” they write. “We would welcome the use of AI in appropriate contexts where it could enable improved or more widely available access for Deaf communities. The focus here would be on appropriate use, such as in train stations or other settings where an AI could be used to provide announcements to deaf travelers.

“Any concerns we may have regarding the use of AI in our field would primarily relate to the potential effect on the continued viability of our profession, the general conditions of our members and the ripple effect that any harm in these domains would have on deaf communities,” adds NUBSLI. “If AI is eventually deployed as a means to replace human interpretation and translation, or provide a cheaper alternative that lowers costs in the industry, we stand would expect to see the profession’s numbers drop as the career becomes less and less sustainable.

“Ultimately, this would harm Deaf communities and users of our services, and we would always work to avoid this as much as possible, with the means at our disposal,” their statement concludes.

In the age of caption glasses and sign language gloves, new AI technologies may soon be added to the mix. As for the role it plays in the community and the debates it will spark, there is – for now – no clear sign.

Photo: @RoboticaML/Twitter.

By Liam O’Dell. Liam is an award-winning deaf freelance journalist and campaigner from Bedfordshire. He can be found talking about disability, drama, politics and more on Twitter and on his website.




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