When Machines Begin To Talk

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

An opinion


If there’s one thing that’s unique about being human, we can’t deny that it’s speech. Sure, animals have a way of communicating but that’s not in any way as refined as we humans do. The key lies in the way we are able modulate sound waves with the rolls and wags of our tongue. Perhaps, it’s for this reason we have phrases such as “mother tongue”. Aural communication in the rest of the animal kingdom is limited to coarse sounds that we simply name as moos, grunts and hee-haws. But it’s not going to be long before we lose our monopoly of speech.

The best machines could do in the past were beeps and alarms. Those of us who have lived through the times of early fixed line modems can recall the staccato of beeps as they tried to handshake and establish a connection to a server somewhere on the internet. Of course, machines also talk among themselves silently, by parsing bits and bytes. But now the time has come for machines to talk directly to humans via human speech.

It’s not that machines have suddenly acquired this skill. We taught them how to do this via technologies such as speech-to-text, text-to-speech and Natural Language Processing (NLP). Today this acquired skill may be limited to a few popular languages but a lot of R&D is underway. Perhaps in a couple of decades machines will be able to converse in every language that we ever invented. Languages evolve and sometimes even die due to globalization. What’s interesting is that machines will never forget. To teach a machine Yaqui or Yiddish may be one way to preserve these languages.

The really sad part is that humans themselves are killing the richness of language. Take English as an example. English has about 750,000 words but only 3,000 words are in everyday use for most folks. English is an expressive language with words borrowed from many other languages. Back in the 19th century, the English novel was highly regarded and widely read. With the onset of social media, we’re happy with saying more with less. Who needs words when 140 characters are enough for a tweet? This is possible because we say mostly the same things these days. Hence being terse is surprisingly a virtue. We used to do this in the days of the telegram for cost reasons. Today we don’t need a reason because this is the new language. Why even think about words when entire phrases can be shortened? AFAIK, and IMHO, there’s nothing wrong if languages evolve this way. BTW, this is FYI. v shldnt be wrried if vowels are dispensed with grmmr or spelling is killed and puncs are unnecssary.

With the coming of smartphones things have gone further. Writers have always been taught to “show, not tell.” Today all of us are writers in some small way. Even if most of us don’t write, we send messages and post comments. To express emotions is as easy as tapping on icons, without even writing a single word. Language has always been an important tool and process that engages our inner mind with the outer world. It’s what enables us to rationalize our thoughts and feelings. When we bypass this process, we are unknowingly forgetting an essential aspect of what makes us human.

We can of course argue that with machines adopting human interfaces (touch, sight and speech), the way we use technology has become more human the last two decades. While we can still type out an email, we can just as surely dictate a memo. We can cut and paste files but we can just as well drag and drop icons. We can command Alexa to order something for us or tell Siri to book a room for Tuesday morning’s meeting. Chatbots and digital personal assistants are the future of man-machine interfaces. While this is certainly a welcome evolution, it’s also replacing many of today’s human-to-human interactions. We will be conversing with someone while knowing and accepting that that someone is really a machine. So here’s the paradox: while machines have learned to talk the language of humans, they’re also alienating us from our own kind.

There’s also another aspect of this paradox. Technology has become so easy to use that we no longer need language when a picture would do. Think Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest. Videos are even better because we rarely see life in still pictures. Videos posted on social platforms, often live streamed, are as close as we can get to reality virtualized. Sounds and visuals are so compelling that they’ve already overtaken text in terms of content creation and consumption. We rarely hear of a blog post going viral but viral videos are pretty regular.

We are today consumers of an unending stream of rich content. Shares, likes, comments and re-tweets are the order of the day. As individuals, we seem to be in control but in fact it’s our connections and the network that define who we are. We are fed with information on what our friends like, what they did or where they will be going. These connections are reinforcing the character of our network and pushing us to follow the herd. Every time we take an action on Facebook or Twitter, we leave an imprint on the herd’s character. Every like that we accumulate for our post or status, we feel secure in knowing that someone agrees even without saying so.

In the realm of multimedia, change is just beginning. Machines are now able to process images and videos to identify objects and recognize faces. They can tell apart a good cucumber from a bad one. They can analyze voice samples and determine stress. So it appears that machines are not only talking and listening to humans but also are seeing and interpreting the world just as humans do. Perhaps in future they will also acquire emotions and face moral dilemmas: because if they have to interact with us better, they cannot be blind to how we ourselves feel. But how genuine are our feelings? At the intersection of biology and psychology, scientists are beginning to understand what chemicals trigger what feelings. The idea is that by triggering certain areas of the brain in a controlled manner, a person can be made to feel happy.

So what does the future hold for the human race? It’s too early to say but it’s clear that in our quest for more efficiency under the capitalistic notion of maximizing profits, we may unwittingly lose our humanity and make machines more human than we can afford to.

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With more than fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about tech blogging, training and supporting early stage Indian start-ups. He is a founder member of two non-profit community platforms: IEDF and Devopedia. In 2013, he published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.

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