Today in the twentieth-first century, we are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, sometimes dubbed 4IR. This is where automation and connectivity, via the internet, will dramatically alter the way in which we interact with each other, as well as everything around us, in our increasingly joined-up technological environment. And I predict, in less than one hundred years from now, this new technology will transform many aspects of our daily lives that we currently take for granted, including language itself.
Indeed, in 2015, many of the world’s leading scientists, warned, in an Open Letter and accompanying report, against the new dangers of AI, as a consequence of 4IR. This Open Letter was issued in response to new breakthroughs in AI that, without adequate control, might pose short and long-term existential threats to humans.
One response to the existential threat posed by AI for humans, and championed by Elon Musk (who incidentally was one of the signatories of the 2015 letter), has been, through his leadership of Neuralink, to develop neuroprosthetic technology that, ultimately, might allow the human brain to become hybridized with AI. The rationale is that by embracing AI, the new “transhuman” can stay one step ahead.
But this is the very research trajectory that potentially leads to the prospect of language becoming a commodity, streamed to neural implants in our heads, with the attendant dangers that come with that.
Today, we stream anything from movies, to books, to music, to our ‘smart’ devices, and consume that content. Smart devices use streaming signals—data encoded in IP data packets—encoded and distributed via wi-fi internet. Language streaming would work, in principle, in the same way. With a ‘language chip’ implanted in our brains, we would be able to ‘stream’ language from internet-in-space on demand, 24/7.
We don’t yet know how things will play out, but we can make some pretty educated guesses—which is the point of my recent novel, The Babel Apocalypse, especially in terms of the future of language and communication. The Babel Apocalypse, a work of science fiction, imagines a future in which we stream language directly to neural implants in our heads and works through the consequences of this ‘what if’ scenario.
First, the novel takes the advent of implantable neuroprosthetic technology, and imagines the very real possibility that within the next one hundred years, the hallmark of what it is to be human—language—an ability that our species alone possesses, will be replaced by AI. Such a development would call into question what it means to be human.
Second, The Babel Apocalypse explores the consequences of humans “giving up” on language, offloading language learning, allowing AI to take over. The consequence of this, according to the novel, is that language will become a commodity (like any other, such as movies, music, and so on, that we currently stream on demand, for a fee), controlled for and by big tech, in service of shareholders and corporate interests.
The novel then predicts that this leads to a slippery slope of issues ranging from potential censorship, control of thought, and even, through cyberterrorism, the prospect of an existential crisis for the human race. This is manifested in several ways in the book, notably a global language outage, which prevents large numbers of people from being able to communicate.
Hence, these two concerns, that underpin the book, call into question what it means to be human, whether AI can and should be allowed to replace previously fundamental aspects of the human experience, and points to potential abuses of what we previously assumed to be a human birth-right.