94: Pushing the Boundaries of Machine Translation - Spence Green, CEO of Lilt A.I.
Play episode · 44 min

Spence Green is the co-founder and CEO at Lilt, a San Francisco-based startup that builds intelligent software to automate translation for businesses.

Spence and his partner, John DeNero, started Lilt because they believed that a person’s native language shouldn’t limit their ability to learn, grow, and support themselves. Social problems such as social inequity - resources in a given society are distributed unevenly - rarely have satisfactory technical solutions.

Steady advances in computational linguistics have brought us to a time at which universal information access is not just a dream.


  • Why an automated translator is important for the corporate world?
  • A CEO’s job and how he influences the organizational culture.
  • Bringing people from stabilized occupations to take the risk to join a start-up.
  • How automated translators are going to increase the efficiency of multilingual content publishing and marketing.
  • Two books that inspire and guide the CEO of Lilt.
  • The importance of a manager in an organization.

Spence and Lilt

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My name is Sam Harris. I am a British entrepreneur, investor and explorer. From hitchhiking across Kazakstan to programming AI doctors I am always pushing myself in the spirit of curiosity and Growth. My background is in Biology and Psychology with a passion for improving the world and human behaviour. I have built and sold companies from an early age and love coming up with unique ways to make life more enjoyable and meaningful.



Sam's blog - SamWebsterHarris.com
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Episode Summary

Meet Spence Green – currently working on machine-assisted language translation as the CEO of Lilt and with a diverse professional portfolio of having worked as a research assistant at Stanford University, a software and research intern at Google, and much more. Having graduated from Stanford with a PhD in computer science back in 2014, his research area is the intersection of natural language processing and human-computer interaction.

Learn why Spence decided on this field of technology and why he thinks that it is important for the corporate businesses across the globe who have to resort to other means of language translation. He works to remove the cross-language barriers hindering significant progress for people.

When you’re a business, you want to translate something. You hire one of these companies from the language industry and they hire a bunch of freelancers. You give them the words and they hire these people and they translate the words and they give it back to you. And it’s slow and inefficient. And this is kind of the main reason why more stuff doesn’t get translated. It’s expensive. So, we started to build systems to make that process more efficient. And that’s what we do now. So, we build this system that institutions who these are businesses, governments and academic institutions can use to publish information across language barriers and do that in a much more efficient way.

He explains what he does in simple words for the audience and then explains the scope that this research has in different domains.

In our field we’re in natural language processing, which is some discipline of artificial intelligence, which is a sub discipline of computer science.

Spence also elaborates how getting a chance to work at Google Translate was a significant and unexpected career opportunity for him – almost an adventure.

It’s a complicated technology to build that requires in the early days we need to do level people to build the system. And they’re not that many of those people in the world and most of them work for tech companies for very large salaries.

He shares what allowed him to convince people from different fields to take the risk to join his start-up company.

It’s less my ability to sell or persuade and more how interesting and important the problem in the mission is. And good scientists and engineers are attracted to hard problems. So, if you have heart problems to solve, that’s probably the best thing that you can do to attract great people.

Spence also has much to say about what his company has been doing for the past few years and what the business processes and mechanisms are.

The process for the last couple of years, is positioning the product in the market so it solves a specific business need. It’s presented in a way that people can understand. You can compare to what they their existing solutions to the problem. It’s priced in way that people understand, and they can get through their procurement departments.

Spencer says that he finds comfort in knowing that his human experience is not unique and the problem that he’s facing, other people have faced and solved. And oftentimes, if you have a good mentor or if you’re surrounded by people who have seen more of the film than you have, then you can focus on solving original problems and not resolving problems.

Somebody told me a long time ago that a CEO has three responsibilities. People, culture and vision and not running out of cash. And those are kind of a unique things that a CEO can do. And I think that people and culture part that has a lot to do with being able to hire well and then being able to articulate expectations for how you want to mobilize a group of people to work together. And a lot of that is being a very good communicator.

He also explains what he expects from the field and the industry overall in the coming few years and how it is going to impact people.

Workload will move to machines. I’m less of an optimist. I guess that the entire field will be fully automated and there’s some sort of dystopian future where nobody has a job anymore. I think that’s not really the history of technology, really. The history of technology is you mechanized things that can be mechanized and that frees people up to work on higher order problems. Maybe that’s not true in places like, I don’t know, the copy shop in a business and now you have a printer and you don’t need a copy person.

Having been a project manager, he also emphasizes the importance of a manager for organizational performance and the impact that he has.

A manager as an individual contributor – you go from assessing your own performance in terms of your individual output to being an organization leader and your performance is the output of your organization.

Key Discussion Points

[7:50] The importance of automated translators and removal of cross-language barriers.
[12:04] How they convinced people to take the risk to join a start-up
[15:53] Importance of having good mentors
[17:35] Strategies that Spence and his company are currently using.
[21:33] Developing into an effective CEO
[28:45] The future of the industry and its impact on people.
[34:54] Two books by Peter Drucker that guide and inspire our guest – “The Effective Executive” and “Management.”

Top Tips

Overcoming the language barrier through technology

We live in an era of rapid globalization, which is demonstrated by the growing demand for language services. Translation technology solves this problem in two ways. First, it enables translation at a level where it does not need to involve a human. Secondly, we’ve seen translation technology increase human translator productivity.

Ultimately, translation is important because it facilitates multilingual communication and allows people from around the world to better understand one another culturally, economically and socially.

Translation technology is just getting to the point where the general public will start to see its impact in their everyday lives. Not only are there free, general translation engines online, but even the more tailored, advanced technology is becoming accessible

Having a good mentor by your side

A good mentor is willing and able to take you on. A good mentor iwill help you stay accountable to your goals, they will help you pay attention and stay on track. A mentor essentially fills those gaps that are missing from your career and professional development growth.

If you are lucky enough to find a personal mentor who can be all of these things to you, you will gain an advantage, because you have a secret weapon that can take you to new heights.

Lead by example

"A leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way" -John Maxwell

Lead a team honestly and authentically. Make sure you "walk the walk." When leaders don't "practice what they preach," it can be almost impossible for a team to work together successfully. How can anyone trust a leader who talks about one thing, but does another?

Good leadership takes strength of character and a firm commitment to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. This means doing what you say, when you say it. If your team knows that you'll also do whatever you expect from them, they'll likely work hard to help you achieve your goal.


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