The mere suggestion that a brain chip could make language redundant cannot be ignored.
In a recent podcast interview, Elon Musk casually said that human language could be out of date in five to ten years. His statement was reinforced by headlines saying that human language will be “obsolete” in five to ten years. Simply replacing the verb “could” with “want”, not to mention grammar, makes all the difference. It definitely caught my attention.
The mere suggestion that a brain chip could make language redundant cannot be ignored. Especially when it comes from the man who changed driving and space technology while trying to colonize Mars. Billionaire entrepreneur Musk makes many predictions in his signature understatement style and sets Twitterverse on fire. Every time he weighs a cryptocurrency, he plays “deity” with the fortunes of many people. When introducing new Tesla models, he follows the laws of physics when it comes to product improvements. So you can never take your views lightly.
One of his favorite projects is Neuralink, a tech startup for brain-machine interfaces. Its fully implantable technology will allow us to use our brains to control computing devices. This could give a new life to people with spinal injuries, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. With its iterative advancements, the Neuralink brain implant promises to be transformative. This led its most famous co-founder to believe that people don’t need to talk to each other. But I disagree with Elon, politely of course.
Language is not only our excuse for communication or our ability to express ourselves, it also carries our identity at its core. Wars were fought and nations formed on the basis of languages. Some cultures are necessarily louder than others. But regardless of the number of alphabets, vowels or characters, language forms the emotional structure of entire cultures. When I opened my keynote in Bangkok with Sawatdi Kha, the audience mumbled happily and was immediately connected. Artificial intelligence struggles to get a grip on Arabic dialects, because even simple greetings differ from country to country. In London, the Queen’s English is not as common as the Cockney or Estuary accent. English sounds different across the UK than it does in different parts of India.
Speech is more than just chatter. The scientists Jacob Dunn and Jeroen Smaers believe that it takes a special brain to speak. There is a direct correlation between the architecture of the brain and our vocal complexity. This means that our complex languages, with a rich body of words and sounds, are directly related to the size of the cortical region associated with the language. Many of our animal cousins, near and far, have ready-to-speak vocal tracts, and yet they cannot be trained to speak beyond a point because they do not have the necessary neural control. Somehow they had no motivation to develop it when humans did.
The origin of language is a speculative subject with little consensus. Language may have been the earliest technology to promote commerce. When the first people in what is now Algeria began to trade shells and pearls, they adopted symbolic behavior because the trade required complex rules and knowledge. Centuries later, complex languages have diverged and some ideas are still lost in translation. Perhaps I have lost Elon’s vision of how language could develop. We are still struggling to find the words to express our hopes and fears.
Would the brain chip help us regain what was lost in translation? Is language really necessary when a simple thumbs-up emoji could do the trick? Would it be easier to tell my dog that I would be home soon? Can my instructions to Alexa be more precise? Millennials and Gen Z prefer to write rather than call their boomer parents anyway. AI can silently change the context of words and build its own lexicon as it develops more efficient ways for us to communicate.
So should we be quick to reject Elon’s prediction? Let’s get back to the reasons behind his forecast. He believes that humans already have a tertiary digital layer consisting of smartphones, computers and apps. Good argument. In a way, we are already cyborgs as Instagram or Twitter have become a digital projection of our personality. In the long term, Neuralink opens up the possibility of telepathic communication. And if we stretch our imaginations, perhaps our digital state could still exist in a robot after we die.
Just as I am tempted to agree, I get a call from a friend describing her mixed experiences during the lockdown in India. It is hard to imagine that we will give up the wealth of great conversation without a fight. I plan to speak my mind for as long as possible. Hopefully in 10 years I can reconsider my claim to see who is right. I really hope that it is me.
Shalini Verma is the CEO of PIVOT Technologies