Appen: Teaching machines to learn language

Imagine you could speak any language in the world. Well, that reality is closer than you might think because of a pretty forward-thinking tech company. Here’s why we think Appen is a company worth get excited about!

In 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, with close to 300,000 killed, and hundreds of thousands of survivors injured or displaced. Communication was crucial for disaster-relief efforts – but it was a nightmare. While everyone wanted to help, not everyone spoke Haitian Creole, and funds weren’t able to be distributed effectively to where they were needed most. Compassionate people around the world were responding with relief money that had nowhere to go.

There was an urgent need to source and translate a huge amount of human correspondence, and quickly. Fortunately, a company came to the rescue. In just 5 days, a company called Appen, in partnership with Microsoft, delivered an online Haitian Creole machine translation system. This system linguistically connected Haiti with the flood of support from around the world and funds started moving quicker to needy recipients.

What sort of company is Appen?

Appen is a global leader in speech and search technology services. If you’ve ever spoken to Siri, you’re using the technology that Appen developed. You’ve also likely used the technology when you search Google or post on Facebook. These platforms use accurate speech recognition developed by Appen to help you to find relevant content on websites, maps, and even merchandise.

Machines can learn over time, but the learning process has to start with humans. Appen creates the framework to educate the algorithms for machine learning. In other words, Siri recognises words because it is told what the words are – just as a search engine only identifies combinations of words because it’s told what it needs to look for.

Some of the largest tech companies in the world rely on Appen’s holistic understanding of the spoken word. For 13 years Appen has partnered with Microsoft’s Natural Language Processing group. This group aims to tackle one of the most difficult aspects of computer-generated translations – how to make language seem natural. Understanding foreign words in context might be fairly easy for humans to learn, but it’s surprisingly hard for a computer to master. The group say that soon you’ll be able to converse with your computer just as you would a person.

What makes Appen a good investment?

The company, which listed on the ASX at the start of 2016, recently posted a 28% jump in net profit after tax to $2.68 million for the first half of the year, with revenue up 33% at $35.8 million. It has also upgraded its full-year guidance for annual revenue of between $68 million and $76 million.

According to Appen’s chief executive Mark Brayan, the evolving nature of the web means that Appen’s niche skillset will always be in demand. “The web is constantly changing and what was current three months ago is no longer relevant and needs to be updated,” says Brayen. What that means, is Appen has (and will continue to have) a continuous flow of work. This work will only be magnified by the increasing popularity of services like Siri, Cortana, and Facebook’s ‘M’, which is a bit like a personal assistant that answers questions like ‘Where’s the best burger joint in the city?’.

With voice interfaces becoming increasingly prominent in new technology, the demand for clear, natural language translations is going to continue to grow.

Other content on the web is likely to undergo an interesting language shift within the next decade. Currently, more than half of the text on the Internet is in English, but only 29% of users are English speakers. With roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world, this suggests that we need a simple and fast method of translating much of the content on the web – and Appen is well-placed to provide for such a need.

What makes Appen an ethical investment?

Appen isn’t just about making profit – the company is also set on providing needed services that benefit society and people. In 2010, it helped with international relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake and their services enable connection and engagement in any language, from anywhere in the world.

The company’s mission is to bring together the best of human intelligence and technology to accelerate global technology solutions, bridging gaps between people and communities.

Here’s what they’ve worked on recently:

Why do we invest in Appen?

At Australian Ethical, we believe it’s important that investors know where their money is going and what activities it’s funding. Take a look at the companies we invest in and you’ll soon discover a recurring pattern that we’re pretty proud of – all of our chosen investments are both positive and aim to deliver competitive returns to our investors.

Our assessment of ‘positive’ investments are guided by our Australian Ethical Charter, which requires us to take into account the interests of people, non-human animals and the environment. The Charter is a series of statements that guide both the positive side (investments we seek out) and the negative side (investments we avoid) of our ethical approach.

One of the positive things our Charter directs us to support is “the development of appropriate technological systems”. We like Appen because their high tech solutions make it easier for people to connect and work efficiently. For example, enabling people to connect in a more inclusive way is made possible through Appen’s non-English language services. In this way, Appen also fits into another of our Charter’s criteria, which is “activities which contribute to human happiness, dignity and education”.

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