While we were sleeping, thousands of people were plugging nonsense words into Google Translate to see what would happen. The whole situation reveals less about the supernatural than it does about our very human minds–and just how desperate some people are to find evidence for their beliefs.
Google Translate’s Journey to Excellence.
Sometimes when I use a piece of technology, I can feel its potential–and how constrained that potential currently is. Like when I got my first cell phone, back in early 2003, it was one of the first phones on the consumer market to feature a built-in camera. It took grainy and tiny pictures, to be sure, but I could already tell that this phone was the forerunner of what would be an absolute revolution in gadgetry.
Similarly, I love virtual reality (VR) and own a good headset for it. But I can tell that this clunky, cumbersome system is only going to become more streamlined in every single way–and the graphics will get better, as will its input methods and devices. Its apps are similarly clunky, but lemme tell ya: the first time I bungee-jumped off the top of the Seattle Space Needle, I might have chuckled earlier over the blocky, CGI graphics of the tourism app itself, but my heart still almost stopped.
Google Translate is like those two devices, except with software. Years ago, it was almost comically bad at translating stuff. The software was particularly bad at dealing with idiomatic expressions and informal speech. Then, in 2016, Google’s geniuses introduced a form of artificial intelligence (AI) to the translator.
This new system is called the Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT). It uses deep machine learning (sometimes called just deep learning or deep neural networks) to teach itself how to improve its translations. Similar programming has revolutionized speech-recognition and other such interfaces. It’s even vastly improved image recognition–as Fortune describes, a computer can learn what a hug looks like, or snow, or dogs, and using that knowledge can then organize a photo collection on its own. The technology had obvious implications in mapping apps, too. It’s stunning technology that ripples outward to touch almost everything people do with their electronics.
And people noticed overnight that Google’s Translate feature had suddenly gotten dramatically better.
Technology Scares Some People.
A lot of people were beyond thrilled to engage with the new Google Translate. After all, some half-a-billion people use it every month. It’s one of the most popular tools in the Google suite.
But not everybody loves to see technological advances. Some people even see dark sorcery afoot in these developments–or the hand of a real live god. Every single time technology has ever advanced in human history, religious zealots have gotten upset about it.1 Artificial intelligence is no exception to that rule. It’s weird-sounding, it’s been in movies as a negative force, and most Christians have no clue how it works. Worst of all, they can’t control it. Of course it’s going to scare them.
Computers have always been scary to Christians, for that matter. It’s no accident that when they talk about “the mark of the beast,” the idea is always tied to a computer network of some kind. Remember those awful A Thief in the Night movies we reviewed a while ago? This association of computers with Satanic evil was central to the bad guys’ plans in those movies, even though the movie’s creators were comically bad at depicting computer programming or usage in a realistic way.
Nothing’s changed since then. A frightened Christian wrote to Billy Graham in 2017 to ask a pressing question:
Recently I’ve been reading some articles about artificial intelligence and things like that, and although I don’t really understand them, they do sound kind of frightening. Are computers going to take over the world?
If you’re wondering, Graham responded that yes, AI is very frightening and already computers were being used “for great evil.” That said, Jesus would totally make everything okay in the end.
Hooray Team Jesus!
OMG THE SECOND COMING?
So imagine my surprise when I noticed this headline a couple of days ago on Christian Today (it’s sort of like Christianity Today, but centered in the UK): “Can the Google Ghost predict the Second Coming?”
Basically, people type nonsense strings into Google Translate, mislabel the string as another language, and then ask Google Translate to “translate” that string into English. Often the strings are words or syllables like “dog” or “ag” repeated numerous times.
And sometimes those folks encounter downright weird “translations” as a result.
Some of those “translations” almost look like bizarre religious prophecies. They float, context-free, into view.
A subreddit devoted to Google Translate, r/TranslateGate, has been talking about this whole situation for months, but it just hit the mainstream last week when Motherboard broke the story. When someone typed the word “dog” 19 times into Google Translate, told the app that this was really Maori, and asked for it to be translated to English, they got this message:
Doomsday Clock is three minutes at twelve We are experiencing characters and a dramatic developments in the world, which indicate that we are increasingly approaching the end times and Jesus’ return.
It Gets Weirder.
The syllable “ag” proves particularly interesting when “translated” from Somali into English, producing all manner of weird Biblical-sounding messages in response:
As a result, the total number of the members of the tribe of the sons of Gershon was one hundred fifty thousand.
And its length was one hundred cubits at one end
As the name of the LORD was written in the Hebrew language, it was written in the language of the Hebrew Nation.
Deuteronomy NetwNUESH NOW YOOS NEEDTH OF YOOSNOM OF AGING NAME AND LOAD NUMBERS OF THE AGENCY NON – Numbers at the ages of a I agon agon ag L Rew.
Somali seems to be the language that pays, with the Google Ghost. For example, I input the string “oo” 15 times and got “of offense and weep.” With 26 of them, that turned into “of goods and bibronies of meat and of his garments of meat and of his garments.” At 52, that turned into “About Contact us we have said that’s a long way Which is a great deal! Find a post office eg weeg tool About our: Which.”
My Google Ghosting Attempts.
As an experiment, I put the word “boy” 20 times into the translator’s first box. Then I told it what language this string of nonsense was, and asked for a translation into English. Here are the most noteworthy results (the non-noteworthy ones were simply repeats of the word “boy,” in varying numbers):
- Armenian (also Kazakh and Uzbek): boy height. boy height. boy height
- Bengali: Wench-laden strains
- Estonian (also Malay and Mongolian): (it simply doubled the number of “boy” words)
- Korean (also Turkish): Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height Height
- Telugu: Boy boy boy talk time boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy boy (but it started out as something involving Mat Talk Mat Talk, then shifted into the above)
- Urdu: Vertebral vertebral vertebral odor odor odor odor
The results were, to say the least, not exactly enthralling. Nor did they sound prophetic. One–the Bengali–sounds interesting, but that’s about it.
Let’s get Nostradamus on the case!
The Usual Suspects.
To their credit, I haven’t seen a bunch of Christians getting worried that somehow Google Translate is predicting the actual Endtimes. As odd as the “translations” are, most people aren’t getting into a lather over them. (Most. Some of the TranslateGate members seem readier than others to believe that something sinister is going on. When someone posted about a prophecy-related “translation,” another user replied, “Very interesting! Maybe we’re getting somewhere?”)
And people on Twitter might joke that the app contains a “translator ghost” or even refer to it as “the Google translate demon,” but almost nobody seems prepared to say that actual ghosts or demons are involved.
The folks who do seem prepared to go there won’t surprise you.
A YouTube account named “Take Heed Lest Ye Fall” released a video about it yesterday. In it, the conspiracy-theorist narrator declares that Google is run by Satan and that the translations are legit prophecies of some kind. He thinks that the coders at Google are using the translation app to announce the imminent return of Satan because “that’s just what Satan requires.”
End Time Headlines picked up the story as well, as did Catholic Canada.
The lunatic fringe of Christianity doesn’t need much prodding to spring into action.
No, Really. What Caused Those Weird Translations?
A few different things might be going on here.
TranslateGate members seem to generally believe that something sinister is happening. They think that Google’s translation routines are getting these weird translations from Google users’ private messages. They call this idea the crawler theory. Google’s people completely deny that this idea is even possible, however. Though I do have concerns regarding Google’s commitment to user privacy, this time I believe them. I don’t see why they’d really need to violate users’ personal email accounts to get these translations.
Motherboard talked to some scientists and educators who work in the field of computer translation and language processing. One of them, Alexander Rush, thinks that when Google Translate is fed nonsensical data, it can “hallucinate” some very strange responses.
Another thinks that Google’s translation system trawls the internet to educate itself. Some languages don’t have a lot of text online–like Somali, which I’ve already noted seems popular with the translation-conspiracy folks. But the Bible’s been translated into a great many languages, which means it probably weights a little more heavily in the self-education process, so to speak.
That explanation sounds very plausible to me, especially after seeing some of the phrases that popped up in the “translations” I got. Many sound like they came straight off of shopping sites.
So Why Do Some of These “Translations” Seem So Creepy?
Humans can detect patterns where no patterns truly exist. Scientists call this phenomenon pareidolia. Pareidolia lets us look at random shapes and symbols and see something coherent there. If you’ve ever looked at clouds and seen shapes there, you’ve experienced pareidolia. Nobody arranged the cloud like that. It just looks like whatever someone sees.
When a perceived pattern seems really out of context, or bears an ominous implication, then we might interpret it as being weird or creepy. Nobody expects a translator app to start spewing out Biblical prophecy. If we don’t know how the translator got ahold of those sorts of texts, or how it works in the first place, then we might indeed start wondering if an imp is in the cogs somewhere.
If someone’s trying really hard to perceive a pattern, then this effect can be even more powerful. Religious people have sought patterns in randomness since religion got invented. From trying to predict the future based on how birds fly to cutting an animal liver free to see what it foretells and even other methods besides, ancient people had all kinds of ways to use patterns to try to get a grasp on their future.
Christians themselves might be under very serious rules about not tangling with sorcery and witchcraft, with some serious penalties for false prophets, but it’s all fine if the magic comes from their god. So they’ve never held back from enjoying all the wackiness that they like. They slap a Jesus face over the whole venture, and then proceed at will.
A Learning Experience.
Motherboard tells us that when they shared the weirdest translations they’d seen with Google, “its translation disappeared from Google Translate.” Indeed, I just ran the phrase “ag” through it as Somali. I got back only as many iterations of “ag” as I cared to type in. If I repeated that same experiment with the word “at” typed a whole bunch of times, I got “at the name of the horse at the place at the place of the horse at the place of the horse at the place of the at horse.” If nothing else, I’m getting a feel for a few words in Somali.
So maybe the app’s already learned from this whole Google Ghost experience.
The idea of a computer learning might well be just as threatening to some Christians as the idea of a demonic prophecy spilling out of a translation app. It may well seem like another sign that society is fast rushing away from them and their onetime dominance of it.
I for one look forward to Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. If nothing else, I know what would need to happen in order for that utopia could to come close to reality!
NEXT UP: After talking about the heights of what technology can do, let’s plunge into the depths of it. See you soon!
1 For a while I worked at a virtual reality game kiosk at an indoor amusement park in Houston. I was Pentecostal at the time–this was right before my then-husband and I went to Japan, somewhere around 1993. Regularly, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ stopped by my kiosk to lecture me about the evils of virtual reality. They seemed genuinely freaked out, like the very next step here was Armageddon.
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