Empowering faith communities with AI translation tools

I created spf.io, an AI-powered translation tool, for two reasons.

The first was my grandma. My family left a church over some serious divisions and were searching for a new one. It was especially challenging to find one my grandma could belong to because of her limited English proficiency.

Given my background in machine translation (MT), I believed it could be possible to translate any worship service into many languages so people like my grandma could participate. This would not only give minority language speakers more choices in the communities they belong to, but it would also strengthen their culture and enable multilingual families to stay together.

This story on language diversity was powerfully captured in a short film by the De Pree Center at Fuller Seminary which you can watch here.

My second reason for creating spf.io was a conviction from reading the Bible that God wants followers of Jesus to be united cross-culturally, cross-generationally and cross-lingually as a witness to the Gospel—that God is forming a new humanity which loves one another across historical divides and is united by their hope in Jesus for a new creation.

Seven years on this technological journey taught me how critical it is for people to have access to religious content and experiences in their native language. AI tools are essential to making it economically feasible to include everyone and we should design such tools to empower communities so they can control and adapt it for their needs.

Google Translate is likely the most widely used MT engine in the world today. Several years ago, it would often translate the English word “worship” to the Indonesian word “ibadah”—an appropriate term for a Christian worship service. But somewhere along the way, Google retrained its engine on more Islamic content shifting many automatic translations towards the Indonesian word “sholat” which refers to Muslim prayer.

This example illustrates why faith communities of all kinds need more control over their language and terminology when using AI.

Without access to the inner workings of MT algorithms and the underlying data sets, without being able to customize AI for their needs, faith communities will have a more difficult time benefiting from the AI-driven digital transformation that is touching all of society.

With spf.io we explicitly choose to give users as much control as possible. Whether it’s through having a human in the loop to edit automatic captions in real time or providing a translation portal that enables communities to fine tune machine translation with their own terminology and content, we choose to expose the power of AI to our users while simplifying unnecessary complexity. The tools increasingly adapt to their domain specific language as they use them.

This approach has proven beneficial beyond churches, having now been used for denominational assemblies, bilingual job interviews, school classrooms, virtual conferences, government meetings, corporate training, magazines and more. Inventing solutions that specifically empower faith communities can help society as a whole.

I’d like to close with Bible translation as a second example of integrating AI and faith.

There are about 7,000 languages in the world, of which a mere 704 have both the Old and New Testament. Generating training data to support automatic translation for low resource languages is challenging and expensive. In nations where low resource languages are spoken, using a platform like spf.io to translate weekly church services with humans in the loop to create or correct translations, naturally results in a useful data set over time. If for example ten churches translated a 300 sentence sermon each week, after the first year they would have a data set with 156,000 sentences—enough to train a reasonable model with! By tapping into the weekly rhythm of translating sermons, churches can help accelerate the translation of the Bible and other content into low resource languages with AI.

In this way, AI technologies exhibit “network effects”. As more people use it for their own benefit and share the translations they produce, the more useful the technology becomes for everyone else.

So what does the future hold?

I dream of a day when every event is accessible in any language. People from all over the world can freely connect—whenever they join a Zoom call, visit a conference, watch a livestream, listen to a sermon or join a small group, they can not only experience it in their language, but actively participate in their language too.

AI-based translation will be integrated into our devices, surfaces and spaces. And instead of segregating churches along the fault lines of language and culture, every church can include and empower people of shared interests, beliefs and values to live with integrity and purpose. And if it works for churches, I believe it will bless our societies too.

Interested in AI and missions? Listen to this podcast episode for a deeper dive into the subject.

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