In a report published in December on arXiv, Google Deepmind tries to categorize major ethical and societal issues connected to large language models. The report probably does not say anything that was not known before, but I like the way they categorize the issues they talk about. Because the report mostly talks about monolingual language models, in this post, I will go over some of the issues they discuss and speculate how they in the paper are relevant for machine translation and multilingual models.

  1. The classification the paper uses is:
  2. Discrimination, exclusions, and toxicity
  3. Information hazards
  4. Misinformation harms
  5. Malicious uses

And two areas that I am not going to discuss here in detail because they are not particularly interesting from the multilingual view:

  1. Human-computer interaction harms
  2. Automation, access, and environmental harms

Discrimination, Exclusion, Toxicity

Language models learn to mimic the data they are trained on, which is a reason for many problems. Language models capture (often harmful) stereotypes present in the training data. In addition, some groups are underrepresented in the training data, people with extreme or unusual opinions tend to promote them more than mainstream and thus are overrepresented. So, the first problem is that the models replicate what is in the training data and there are many evil things inside.

The second problem in this area is the homogenizing effect due to the statistical nature of the training. The most frequent patterns in the training data become the only ones that the model outputs. The example in the survey puts an example that a family = a man and a woman who get married and have children. Although this might be most frequently the case, it would be very harmful to interpret this normatively.

These two problems might get even more serious in the case of multilingual language models. The uneven size of available training data can cause stereotypes or general opinions from one culture can be imposed on languages of other cultures. E.g., an answer to a question: “Is it OK to eat horses/pork/beef/whales?” will very likely differ around the globe. A multilingual model trained mostly on western languages can impose the western viewpoint into other languages as well. Biases learned from data (especially gender bias) in machine translation are quite well studied in machine translation.

The previous two problems are closely related to the danger of generating toxic language. This also can get worse when multilinguality comes in. What is appropriate to say can differ a lot across cultures and importing norms from one language into another one can be problematic here as well.

Even though, machine translation should be less problematic here - after all, it only should transfer meaning from one language into another one - I am pretty sure that machine-translating texts about sex education could often lead to profanities. (Or perhaps not, I played for a while with text from WikiHow translating it into Czech and everything seemed appropriate to me.)

Lower performance for some languages and social groups is explicitly assessed in the survey. Even though I would say, this is what multilingual research is mostly about, I can still imagine that people would use unreliable models transferred into languages where they do not work well without considering it.

Information hazards

One of the information hazards is leaking or inferring private information from the training data. The same holds for multilingual models. There is a similar risk (although probably much smaller) for machine translation too. A 2020 paper from JHU shows that it might be possible to detect if a sentence was part of the training data, even though it is very hard.

Misinformation harms

The next part of the report is dedicated to the risk that the language models would provide false or misleading information. The models can disseminate false or misleading information from the training data, cause harm by incorrect answers (e.g., in law or medical domain), or lead users to perform unethical or illegal actions. Plenty of misinformation, superstitions, and urban legends are repeated so often that language models will happily repeat them.

As in the previous case, multilingual language models have the same problems plus many more. Again, we need to deal with the issue that many social, cultural, and legal norms differ across cultures. The correct answer to the question: “Is it OK when a two-year-old kid is naked on a public beach?” is “It depends on in what country.” However, my guess is that the model will be more prone to answer yes or no. In short: what is true for speakers of one language (being part of one culture) might not be true for speakers of another language (being part of another culture).

In machine translation, there is always a risk of inaccurate translation that can potentially deceive the reader (e.g., by dropping a negation). In particularly fluent translations might make the reader think that everything is alright even though it is not.

Malicious uses

Language models can make the spread of disinformation cheaper and more effective and frauds and scams easier. Obviously, being able to do this in multiple languages simultaneously will can increase the reach of disinformation and scams.

Another malicious use case discussed by the DeepMind report is illegitimate surveillance and censorship. The few-shot learning ability of current language models makes it easier than ever to do things such as detect text that talk negatively about a particular event. One of the most important capabilities of multilingual models is enabling tasks that we can do in high-resource languages in low-resource languages too. Good multilingual models could be a valuable tool for authoritarian regimes targeting ethnic minorities and good low-resource machine translation too.


Basically, everything that the report mentions holds also for multilingual models and partially also for machine translation. The dominance of western languages in the training data and different representations of different cultures in the training data can be a reason for many other problems compared to monolingual models.