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Will there be a time in the not-so-distant future when people won’t need to learn a second language — instead relying on machine translation powered by artificial intelligence to interpret real-time conversations?

This is a key question, and a fear, for many businesses in the language industry.

But panelists at a recent symposium on how the “internet of things” will affect media outlets and education, co-hosted by English language school chain Aeon Corp. and The Japan Times, agreed that AI and other technologies will never be able to completely replace humans.

For those who want to study a second language, the goal is not simply to become fluent in the language, said Aeon President Yoshikazu Miyake.

“It’s to become confident enough to enjoy communication in a foreign language,” Miyake said. “Many people want to speak in their own words.”

Plenty of Japanese businesspeople can communicate smoothly in English when they are talking about their fields. But when it comes to making small talk at parties after a meeting, for instance, many clam up, not knowing what to say or how to say it, he said.

Miwako Iyoku, president of e-learning company Docomo Gacco Inc., agreed, saying state-of-the-art simultaneous machine interpretation can translate simple conversations but cannot fulfill people’s fundamental desire to talk in person.

Before the event, Iyoku demonstrated a simultaneous machine interpretation system developed by NTT Network Innovation Laboratories, a research subsidiary of the NTT group.

When Iyoku asked the audience in Japanese to look at the screen, the computer immediately displayed the phrase in Japanese on the screen, with an English translation following seconds later. In its current form, the machine can only translate simple conversations, but it will become smarter as data accumulates, she said.

Ironically, the technological advance will probably push people to put greater value on human interaction, Iyoku said.

“When music-streaming services hit the market, the sales of CDs decreased dramatically. But the loss in the domestic music market was made up because more people started going to live concerts,” she said.

“As digital technology advances, people put more value on actual communication. And I believe that can happen everywhere,” she said. “It sure is terrifying when drastic change is coming. … But after all, I believe things can coexist.”

The same can be said for newspapers, said Japan Times President Takeharu Tsutsumi, the third panelist.

Tsutsumi admitted that subscriptions will continue downward. But he added that newspapers will remain a gateway to perspectives on news occurring in society, likening it to “a nutritious food.”

“The most important thing in today’s era of (internet of things) is to be careful about the balance in what information you take in — like when you eat food,” he said. “Your health will deteriorate if you only eat things you want to eat.”

Tsutsumi expressed concern that an increase in one-sided news on social media has led to the rise of inward thinking, as seen in the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election last year.

“Given that many people who are used to the internet since they were born are coming into society, it is not surprising that the way to reach information has been changing over time,” Tsutsumi said. Still, “I believe newspapers will remain a packaged media that provide balanced information.”

Media outlets, however, are already making use of the advanced technology.

Since January, the Nikkei business daily has run short stories on financial reporting written by an AI-powered computer program, allowing it to deliver a vast amount of news instantly without reporters.

But Tsutsumi said it is unlikely that AI will completely replace flesh-and-blood reporters because so far only humans can make judgment calls on the value and authenticity of information.

“Successful communication requires the human ability to understand the situation they are in and to read context. So I don’t think face-to-face communication will ever disappear,” he said. “And a reporter’s job of exposing lies is also irreplaceable.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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