Here’s something that Google should be able to do pretty easily: define a word.
Google is inarguably the most far-reaching interconnected software platform on earth. It brings you search results, mail, word processing, spreadsheets, videos, video chat, video games, maps, music, notes, phone operating systems, computer operating systems, online advertising, cloud computing, news, payments and even a platform that allows you to control everything in your home.
They can open your garage door or, if you just want to look at your garage door, you can go on Google Street View and do that, too — as well as look at the garage doors of millions of other people in the United States alone.
This is pretty 21st century “Jetsons” stuff Google is capable of delivering. Given the fact that Robert Cawdrey is credited with creating the first comprehensive English dictionary in 1604 and Samuel Johnson with what many scholars would consider the first modern dictionary in 1755, we should therefore be able to safely expect our computer overlords in Mountain View to have the whole word/definition thing pretty well under control, even if there’s translation involved.
Maybe not as much as you would like. A glitch — or “glitch,” if you’d prefer — in Google’s Translate app defined “demon,” when you translated it from English to English, as “a police officer.”
According to Breitbart, this strange phenomenon was first noticed by users of Reddit’s /r/Conspiracy group.
— L. Stansell (@LStansell74) July 28, 2020
It wasn’t just that “a police officer” was a definition on Google Translate — there’s an explanation for that, but more in a bit — but that it was the first definition, and that it just so happened to come up during a period in which invective against police officers is considered perfectly acceptable.
Breitbart reached out to Google for comment but didn’t receive any, although the issue was rectified after the request for comment was sent.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Translate app or can’t figure out what it does by the title alone, it translates either words or blocks of text — and does it very well.
This isn’t some beta app we’re talking about. In fact, you can actually use your camera, point it at text, and if you hold it still enough it’ll graphically overlay the translation in your choice of language.
It does this well enough that, during a trip to Saint Petersburg last year, I didn’t even have to ask anyone where to find a single dead Romanov. (They’re almost all buried in one surprisingly unimpressive cathedral — but rest assured if they’d been stashed around the city, Google Translate did a good enough job with the Russian language and Cyrillic alphabet that I would have still been able to find them, as well as the two other dead Romanovs the Russian Orthodox church won’t allow to be buried.)
Clearly, then, something’s gone terribly awry here. As previously stated, the problem’s been fixed (here’s an archived version of what you would have seen before), but that still doesn’t exactly solve the mystery of why “a police officer” was the top definition of “demon” if you ran it through an English-to-English translation.
If you’re wondering why, the first potential explanation is that there’s a part of the world where “demon” is slang for certain policemen. That’s in Australia and New Zealand; several sources (WARNING: Sources contain language some users might find offensive) have listed the word “demon” as argot for a detective.
If you do a Google search for the word “demon,” in fact, “police” will also come up as a definition. (They also define “demon” as “a police officer” and not specifically a detective — being neither Australian nor possessed of the polymathic abilities of Dr. Johnson, I’ll let you be the judge.)
This, too, seemed to annoy some conservative Twitter users:
— Jonathan T Gilliam (@JGilliam_SEAL) July 29, 2020
Given that “detective” seems to be a legitimate, if obscure, definition of the word “demon,” this isn’t exactly something to bring the red mist on.
That still doesn’t explain how “a police officer” became the primary definition of the word “demon” in a well-refined app.
There are three obvious explanations here.
The first is a glitch. Yes, Google Translate is well-refined, but this isn’t a feature that I imagine is tried out too often. There aren’t too many people running English-to-English translations on common words because we either have jobs, families, hobbies, chores, friends, “Animal Crossing” or literally anything else to keep us busy. Even the quality control people at Google can’t test every single word to see if issues like this pop up.
The second is how Google comes up with some of its search results. For instance, in 2018, the search engine got in trouble because it referenced Wikipedia to get answers for certain questions.
Unfortunately, as anyone who’s hung around Wikipedia for long enough knows, an encyclopedia anyone can edit is prone to vandalism. Thus, for a short window two years ago, if you asked what the ideology of the California Republican Party was, one of the answers was “Nazism.”
— Nick Sorrentino (@LibertyandEcon) June 1, 2018
This would have been fixed systematically once we processed the removal from Wikipedia, but when we noticed the vandalism we worked quickly to accelerate the removal of the erroneous information.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) May 31, 2018
The final possibility — and this is what really sticks in your craw given the events of the past two months — is a sick version of an “Easter egg.”
For the uninitiated, “Easter egg” is a term given to a secret software feature that’s hidden from users. There are plenty of them on Google; for instance, searching for “askew” will get you this:
— Mitya (@oats4goats) July 28, 2020
That’s cute. Easter eggs, however, can also be decidedly uncute — especially considering the potential for an Easter egg that defines police officers as demons.
The thing with Google is that a) the third explanation is entirely plausible and b) it’s also entirely plausible that, were it true, nobody would really get in trouble for it.
No one is under any illusions about what the political environment is at Google, the same way no one is under any illusions what the political environment is anywhere else in Silicon Valley. If there was anyone at Google who was troubled by this, they probably stayed quiet as a mouse.
If biggest tech firm in all of big tech can’t translate a word from English to English without it turning out this way, they owe an explanation to the people who trust them with everything from our email to our personal search histories to our garage door openers.
They may not care very much about this. But a lot of us do.
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