China’s favorite social media app, WeChat, has apologized for yet another instance of racist robots.
Yesterday morning, Shanghai-based theater guru Ann James messaged her Chinese colleagues on a WeChat group to tell them that she was running late. As usual, James used the in-app translation feature to read the responses from her Chinese coworkers and was horrified when one of the messages “黑老外还是迟到” was translated to read “The niggers still late.”
Like laowai (老外), heilaowai (黑老外) is generally a neutral term in Chinese meaning “black foreigners.” And WeChat translated it as such, except in negative contexts when heilaowai was translated as a racial slur. Yesterday, That’s Shanghai demonstrated how the translation differed depending on the words around it — resulting in “Black foreigners is cool” versus “A nigger is a thief.”
WeChat has since apologized for the offensive error in its translation algorithm, telling Sixth Tone that “After receiving users’ feedback, we immediately fixed the problem.”
Indeed, tests conducted by Shanghaiist now show that heilaowai is translated to “black foreigners” regardless of context.
As for how the racist obscenity got there in the first place, a WeChat spokesperson told Sixth Tone that its “neutral machine translation” was constantly being refined to provide results that were “more accurate, faithful, expressive and elegant.”
Because modern translation apps, and other types of artificial intelligence, use big data sets, there is always the risk that the machines will pick up some coarse, offensive or politically incorrect language along the way. Back in August, Tencent, the maker of WeChat, was forced to remove an opinionated chatbot from its popular QQ messaging app after the bot began telling users why it hated the Communist Party.
For instance, when one user typed “Long live the Communist Party,” the chatbot, named Baby Q, asked: “Do you think that such a corrupt and incompetent political party can live for long?”
[Images via That’s Shanghai]
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