The eleventh annual Language of Business conference hosted by the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) took place in Munich, Germany, on 24–27 March 2019. The event brought together members of the global language services industry to discuss how smart, digital, networked technology is impacting our business and us as human beings.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionising business. Marketing is one of the most fertile grounds for it, with digital personas created to correspond with clients in unlimited numbers of emails as well as chatbots that make you believe you are having a conversation with a human.

In sales, tools connected to CRM systems track the length of your average sales cycle, identify your chances of winning a deal and predict which of your clients are thinking of leaving. The Crystal app added to your LinkedIn account provides personality and behaviour assessments from your prospects’ social media profiles to enable you to approach them most effectively.

AI collects and analyses world news and produces reports that are indistinguishable from human journalistic writing. It performs certain paralegal tasks such as analysing huge numbers of files to predict the outcome of a case – and can do it more accurately than the law firms’ senior partners.

These applications of artificial intelligence are not specific to the language industry. But in developing modern language services, our industry also applies forms of AI in speech, image and handwriting recognition, in data mining and deep learning as well as in natural language understanding, sentiment analysis and machine translation.

As participants in one of today’s high-tech industries, we are at the forefront of considering the competitive advantages of AI and also facing its inevitable trade-offs. That is exactly what the 500 attendees came to do in Munich.

Interspersing the weightier matters with some light entertainment, the event was on the whole very successful. If I was in charge of presenting Annual Academy Awards to the star performers of the GALA 2019 conference, I would not hesitate to hand out at least five Oscars, in the following categories.

1. Award for the Best Original Screenplay: Opening keynote (Brett Frischmann)

The author of ‘Re-engineering Humanity’ kicked off the conference with a dystopic perspective to humanity in the 21st century. Instead of focusing on the human advances in making machines that are like humans, he asked whether the current techno-social environment is making humans more machine-like. Brett claimed that traits of humanity can be lost and humans can potentially be programmed to not think. How should our obligation to humanity shape our response to technology?

He talked us through the 24/7 surveillance creep, mood prediction bands and apps, a Facebook experimentation with fake birthday notifications which even people who knew the real birthdays reacted to, children’s fitness and behaviour tracking programmes at schools, and us becoming so accustomed to all this that we normalise such arrangements.

Brett pointed out that it is Orwellian double-speak when we talk about engagement and mean responding on social media in a pre-programmed manner that outsources thinking. He encouraged us to resist handing over thinking and decision-making and succumbing to the message that the cloud is a black box too complicated for us to understand so we have no real need to know what happens inside it.

The end goal for techno-social engineering is not always technology. Any historical example of any tool driving robotic-like behaviour in humans has always had a human mind behind it. Brett urged us to ask: ‘Who gains power from the tech-boosterism of today?’

2. Award for the Actors in a Supporting Role: Session moderators

With a topic like artificial intelligence, pitching the content right for the audience is difficult. This year more than ever before, it became apparent how much a good moderator can raise the standard of a session by challenging the presenter to stay focused and to give concrete examples of what they mean. The best ones did not hesitate to step in and voice the questions and comments that the audience was quietly thinking. Thank you for that contribution.

3. Award for the Best Original Scores: GALA dinner at the iconic Hofbräuhaus München

It can also be surprisingly difficult to pitch the music right for the dancing at a language industry dinner party. Gene Schriver did a great job for two nights running as the resident DJ.

Food and drinks served on Monday evening for the record crowd of attendees were no mean feat for GALA and the sponsoring GALA member SDL to organise. When the noise level made conversation futile, we resorted to dancing.

4. Awards for Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling: Take On Me for TWB

On Tuesday evening, groove was in the hair. Inspired by GALA member Ludejo, two hundred attendees joined in to support Translators Without Borders (TWB) at an 80s-themed fundraiser evening called Take on Me for TWB.

Always keen to encourage dressing up for a good cause, STP donated the prize for the best costume and I dug out my vintage 80s wear. Jesper coolly allowed his shirt collar to be popped up halfway through the evening.

5. Award for the Actress in a Leading Role: Closing keynote (Véronique Özkaya)

It is easy to echo the words of Dave Ruane in his introduction to the final conference session: ‘We need more women leaders like Véronique’. Talking about business growth and where it comes from, she personified the spirit of La Niaque.

There is no room for negativity in the sales role; sales people must have the fighting spirit, or as she put it, fire in the belly. I would like to add that the same applies to leadership roles too.

Véronique pointed out that since we live in a VUCA world, we must be agile in setting up and running our growth engine.

During her career, she said she had identified obstacles to growth at management level (lack of leadership), at organisational level (broad focus) and at strategic level (no sales method). Her advice was simple: #customerobsession brings #customerloyalty.

What happened in Munich should not stay in Munich

The annual GALA conference may well be the jewel in the crown of the language industry conference season. Unlike the Oscars, attendance is not about gaining recognition or being present at a roll call. It is about acknowledging the need for more (artificial) intelligence and (deep) learning so that we can run our businesses better. I am sure we all came home with more than just a cold.

In addition to the lively session review aggregation on Twitter, 16 of the 61 sessions from this year’s conference were livestreamed to GALA members all over the world. There should thus be no danger of the wisdom shared in Munich staying in Munich.

Header image credits: Igor Marach, Technolex

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