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Facebook’s plan to speak every language

Facebook’s plan to speak every language

Good morning! This Tuesday, Facebook's working on a better way to translate the internet, there's an AR social network for your ears, and how about a home office on a cruise ship.

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The Big Story

An actually global translation algorithm

Anna Kramer writes: Machine-learning translations are notoriously difficult, and training the models without English even more so. Yesterday, Angela Fan, an AI researcher at Facebook, and her team announced the first such model that can translate 100 languages into 100 languages and back again without relying on English.

That it doesn't rely on English is a big deal. English-language training data is pretty robust compared to basically every other language in the world, so a lot of translation algorithms go from, say, Mandarin, to English, to French, instead of directly from Mandarin to French. Which, as you can imagine, can lead to both bad and English-centric translations.

  • Fan, who is Chinese, knows the problem firsthand. "There are plenty of regions in the world where people speak multiple languages that are not English," she said, and models that rely on English data make translation for those people "like a game of telephone."

Translation is hard, though, and good research doesn't always make good products. Non-English speaking Facebook users are out of luck if they were hoping this would help them straight away. The new model won't be put into use on Facebook until the researchers can determine whether it actually improves translation in practice. Just because the model beats other English-centric multilingual models on what's known as a BLEU score (a way of scoring translation), it doesn't necessarily have a practical use without more tinkering.

  • "We're working on improving our translation quality all the time, and we are exploring integrating it," Fan said. "But that's going to take some time."

But this is all still good news for researchers, Fan told me. "I'm really passionate about enabling research for others," she told me, "and plenty of really smart people … would really rely on having this data and model available."


Fintech runs up against the bank-account divide

More from Anna: About 7.1 million American households still don't have access to a single checking or savings account, including almost 14% of Black households and 12% of Hispanic ones (compared with less than 3% of white households), according to 2019 FDIC numbers released yesterday.

  • Without bank accounts, these people have a harder time accessing traditional financial offerings like loans and even more difficulty with digital payment technologies.
  • Past surveys have shown that unbanked households tend to heavily rely on cash and other forms of paper transactions.

The problem is cash has definitely not been king over the last six months. As restaurants and local businesses and minimarts were lauded for going cashless to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, unbanked families were cut out.

  • "The social distancing guidelines instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may make the use of cash, paper checks, and money orders (i.e., paper instruments) to conduct financial transactions particularly challenging," the authors of the latest report wrote.

Peer-to-peer payment technologies, like those provided by Paypal, Venmo and CashApp, were also included in the report for the first time. While the survey found that about a third of Americans rely on these apps, there was also a pretty scary statistic about the reality of that access for unbanked households:

  • Only 9% of unbanked households actually use the services, and that usage rate drops to about 3% for households (both banked and unbanked) without smartphone or internet access.
  • Use of these technologies was also dramatically higher among white, college-educated, young, and $75,000+ yearly income households.


An AR social network in your AirPods

Dennis Crowley told me he currently has the best job in the New York tech scene: running an R&D lab at Foursquare tasked with building "cool and novel products with our technology." The lab's latest: Marsbot for AirPods, a location-based service for finding cool stuff around you, that functions entirely through your headphones.

  • Once you download the app, you just put on AirPods and it'll start running. As you move or drive, it'll occasionally pause what you're listening to and tell you about a great coffee shop or a sick brunch deal nearby.
  • It's more than just an audio guide to your city, though. Crowley and his team recently added a feature that lets users leave location-based notes in their own voice, so that when someone else walks or drives through the same spot they'll hear it. They see it as a kind of augmented-reality, location-based social network.

This could be a fun voice in your head, or a total nightmare of notifications, depending on how it works. Crowley told me he likes the idea of going big and then pulling back later: "Let people drink from the firehose and then fix it, rather than drip, drip, drip," he said. Though Marsbot for AirPods does already have tools for reporting problematic content.

The app was supposed to launch at SXSW, where I suspect it would have been a big hit. Now that there's less going out, he's not sure how the new app will do. He's not particularly concerned, though: To Crowley and Foursquare, it's more project than product. "I'm sick of not launching this, so I wanted to launch it and get out there," he said.

  • Crowley did have one other motivation: He thinks audio-based augmented reality is going to be huge, and wanted to plant his stake in the market. "It'll work with any headphones," he said. "But I wanted to claim the idea of apps that run when you put on your AirPods."



Strengthening healthcare interoperability and cybersecurity in the COVID era

A stronger healthcare system means connecting people, data and technology for a frictionless experience across care settings. At Philips, we're developing interoperable solutions that seamlessly transfer data so clinicians can stay focused on what matters most: the patient.

Learn more.

People Are Talking

AOC: Great at Twitter, and now ready to take on game-streaming:

  • "Anyone want to play Among Us with me on Twitch to get out the vote? (I've never played but it looks like a lot of fun.)"

Pakistan un-banned TikTok, but it's still keeping an eye on the platform:

  • "The restoration of TikTok services is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity / indecent content and that the societal values will not be abused."

John Stankey said tech giants have too much negotiating power, which is only a tiny bit ironic coming from the CEO of AT&T:

  • "Where the bottlenecks are sometimes occurring are in these commercial agreements. We should ask ourselves, is that friction somebody really feeling their oats and maybe having market power above and beyond what's reasonable for innovation?"

Making Moves

Instacart hired two new executives: Christina Hall is its new (and first) CHRO and Ariel Bardin is its new SVP of product. Hall joins from LinkedIn, Bardin from YouTube.

GetYourGuide laid off about 90 people, as the SoftBank-backed travel company continues to struggle during the pandemic.

In Other News

  • Intel sold its NAND memory business to SK Hynix for $9 billion. It's yet another divestiture for Intel, as it tries to focus on its struggling CPU business — and it means SK Hynix now has a 20% share of the NAND market.
  • A vote to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey was delayed by the House Judiciary Committee. It will now take place on Thursday, reportedly because some GOP panel members are unsure whether they support the idea.
  • TikTok joined the QAnon crackdown, saying that it will ban all content and accounts that promote the conspiracy theory. Easier said than done, though, as YouTube shows: A QAnon conference was livestreamed all day Saturday.
  • On Protocol: Turner Sports made a blockchain golf game. The Ethereum-based, online Blocklete Games is Turner's first significant foray into actually developing video games, and it's got big plans for it.
  • The EU is investigating Instagram over whether it violated child data privacy laws. Ireland's Data Protection Commission, which leads the EU's data regulation, said there were "potential concerns," which could result in a fine.
  • The U.S. indicted Sandworm, Russia's cyberwar unit. Six men were charged with computer fraud and conspiracy, and accused of attacks on the Ukranian government, French elections and PyeongChang Olympics. Separately, the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre said Russia was planning a cyberattack on the Tokyo Olympics.
  • Don't miss this story on Foxconn's non-existent Wisconsin project, from The Verge. The factory was supposed to employee 13,000 people and invest more than $10 billion in the local economy, but all that's left is empty space, empty promises and a lot of employees stuck in limbo.
  • Pour one out for Adam Neumann: He didn't get paid all of his $185 million consulting fee from SoftBank, Bloomberg reports, with Marcelo Claure saying the deal is no longer in effect.
  • Microsoft is CES 2021's official technology partner. Teams is the new Vegas. Can't wait.

One More Thing


So you don't have to go to the office anymore, but you don't want to stay home all day. How about … working and living on a converted Carnival Cruise ship, with all your influencer and crypto-libertarian friends? All it'll cost you is $25,000, and presumably every ounce of sanity you had left. Not exciting enough? How about crushing it all day from the comfy seat of a Ferris wheel in Japan? That one's only $18. Such a steal.



Strengthening healthcare interoperability and cybersecurity in the COVID era

A stronger healthcare system means connecting people, data and technology for a frictionless experience across care settings. At Philips, we're developing interoperable solutions that seamlessly transfer data so clinicians can stay focused on what matters most: the patient.

Learn more.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to, or our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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