Last weekend, at the humanity+ conference in San Francisco, Ben Goertzel, live from Hong Kong, via Skype, graced us with his predictions on the future of communication. According to Ben, in the future we will be able to transmit semantic graphs, or chunks of mind, completely bypassing linguistic utterance, that is your tongue, your jaw, vocal cords, throat, breathing apparatus and everything that goes with articulating speech. The first thought that occurred to me was “OMG. I won’t have to do the Theophilus Thistle drill ever again”. Great. But then I thought, “Wait a second. Is content really separate from form?”
A brief history of communication came rushing to my aid. Shakespeare immediately popped up, unannounced. Just consider this sentence: “From Fairest Creatures We Desire Increase That Thereby Beauty’s Rose Might Never Die.” Ten Years ago someone would’ve said, “I Think You Should Have a Baby”, with the likely subtext (with me). Nowadays, a simple TFB tweet would suffice. It seems that throughout the centuries, and with the advent of new technologies, such as the printing press, where traditions and stories did not need to be told orally from one generation to next, the human mind has gradually lost the capacity to think and articulate longer, complex thoughts. Fantastic. Now I understood. Ben’s semantic graphs meant a return to Shakespeare. People would be able to articulate and think in complex, rich sentences again. Or Not? That realization was shattered almost instantly by a rather dystopian scenario: Would these ‘chunks of mind’ represent the beginning of a homogeneous, communication efficient society?
Every person has his own idiolect, a way of communicating that has been imprinted from the moment he was born, his individual fingerprint. To wipe that out would be to eliminate the subtlety of communication, the insecurity, assertiveness, trembling, tone of voice—which most of the time communicates more than what is actually being said. Even silence can be eloquent. On the other hand, ants are extremely efficient; their method of chemical communication is a true wonder of nature. However, no one would say ants represents human consciousness. What distinguishes human consciousness is the allure of beauty, divine superfluous beauty. There’s a difference between the practical human being and the human human being; a specific mode of consciousness of which other species know nothing of. To transform society in some sort of efficiency communication machine would be to negate the very thing that defines human.
Then there’s the problem of subtext. Suppose we’re able to communicate through semantic graphs. Can a person with shady purposes hide data from the chunk that is being sent? Or is it inseparable from the package? Suppose a young woman of marrying age meets a strapping young lad who says “I’ll marry you.” But what he really mean is (…and then I’ll kill you). Does she get to read the subtext? Can we separate stated objective from real objective? Who to trust, when or why? Will there be a ranking system of trustworthiness? Also, will there be no singers? No Opera? No poets? Will all subtlety be lost in translation? What if birds decide to hop on the bandwagon, will they stop singing altogether?
The future is hard to predict, and as Ben said, we can only see as far as the headlights. However, we should aspire that new technologies will be there to enhance what we define as human and amplify it, not take away from it. In the meantime, while we wait for the future, lest your tongues atrophy, please repeat with me:
Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle sifter,
In sifting a sieve full of un-sifted thistles,
Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.
If Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle sifter,
Can thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb,
See that thou, in sifting a sieve full of un-sifted thistles,
Thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb.