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Blockchain: When the Token Economy Meets the Translation Industry

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Blockchain is an infrastructure technology, a distributed database that provides a way for various parties to reach consensus about facts in a secure, decentralized way without the need for a trusted intermediary. In particular it distributes the same data to all parties so they can hold and use identical copies of a particular file, thereby increasing mutual trust. Here we share with you 3 approaches to blockchain.

“The language services and blockchain technology could be considered a match made in heaven,” says Peggy Peng, the founder of Singapore LIC (Language Information Communication) Foundation. And Robert Etches, founder of the new company Exfluency, would almost certainly agree, going much further in his embrace of this brave new paradigm-shifter: “Blockchain is the most exciting change in global thinking since 1990s. It’s important that someone succeeds. When you create a blockchain the idea is to make it so it changes human behavior. There is a greater good involved here. ideology over business.”

These are powerful statements. But there is, of course, much head-scratching about the general value of this relatively new technology. And much confusion about the relationship between blockchain and cryptocurrencies. TAUS wants to help the industry understand at least the fundamental message behind blockchain, if not all the details of each application scenario. This is especially useful at a time when some of the old certainties about the translation industry are beginning to waver.

piggybankQuestions abound about the technological and ethical future of our business. Is there any value in building bigger translation service companies or platforms only to reduce the human workforce involved to pawns in a gig economy? Can we really scale up the range of language pairs and take a proactive approach to covering “all” the world’s translation needs by continuing to use the same old approach to data ownership and control? And now that neural MT systems are establishing a new paradigm of data-driven learnable intelligence, is there a way for the fruits of data production and usage to be more shared more equitably and intelligently? It would also be useful to further reduce the complexity of back-office processes. Can blockchain effectively address these issues?

First, let’s agree that blockchain is an infrastructure technology. A distributed database – a ledger - that provides a way for various parties to reach consensus about facts in a secure, decentralized way without the need for a trusted intermediary. In particular it distributes the same data to all parties so they can hold and use identical copies of a particular file, thereby increasing their mutual trust because the data cannot easily be faked or illegally duplicated.

Yet more importantly, blockchain puts a “token economy” into practice. This means that tokens (objects or symbols) can be exchanged for specific services or privileges – for example, language data or transcreation services. The true value of the token system, however, can only be found within the ecosystem in question.

As Robert Etches told us, “an effective token strategy is one where the exchange of a token within an economy impacts behavior by aligning the user’s incentives with the wider community.” This suggests a shift in mindsets as well as technology.

So is blockchain simply a useful enabling technology, founded on this key principle of decentralized contractual management using tokens? Or could it be something closer to a new killer app?

Opinions vary. Says Ofer Shoshan, CEO of One Hour Translation (OHT): “I don’t see blockchain as disruptive to the industry. Once it is mature it will allow certain things to be done better and more efficiently. But it will not do for the translation industry what digital photography did to Kodak!”

Ofer sees the blockchain as an opportunity to develop a system of globally shared translation data with per-use compensation for the entity involved in the process. “I think it can make the whole industry more efficient while still paying royalties to those who deserve them.”

In particular blockchain could help improve the quality of translations, reduce human errors, and improve business efficiency. “As an example, consider the amount of overlap there is between all the Translation Memories around the world. Think of how much money is wasted on translating things that other companies have already translated.”

coinsPromoting his far more visionary interpretation of the promise of blockchain, Robert Etches, says that the challenge facing us is to “stop thinking like the language industry and start thinking about how many people use language around the world to communicate better. 99% percent of content still remain in its source languages. So the industry has failed. But if blockchain can extend the capability of mankind to even double up digital content, that is already huge. I believe there are plenty of people who, instead of competing with big accounts, really want to translate to a much larger communicative community, keeping up the quality but lowering the price. Blockchain will underwrite this.”

Like Peggy Peng at LIC, he believes that you can’t build this model starting from an existing organization. “The token has to drive the change.” Robert's team advocate the concept of "Doing Better Business". By doing the right thing, people can work for a greater good and earn money. “Blockchain empowers innovators to do better business.” And alluding to the present situation of data ownership and big business, he reminds us that “no corporation can put a copyright on language.”

To hear Etches, Peng and Shoshan speak live on the topic and ask your questions, click the button below to join us on 20 September at the live TAUS Webinar.

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Andrew Joscelyne

Long-time European language technology journalist, consultant, analyst and adviser.
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