Q&A with the author Vyvyan Evans on the language streaming technology and the future of communication in his new novel (published May 2023 by Nephilim Publishing)
Q: What would you say is the most important message of The Babel Apocalypse?
VE: The context against which The Babel Apocalypse is set is the World’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR.
We currently stand on the brink of a new technological revolution, involving connectivity, smart AI and the Internet of Things. This will lead to a transformation in scale and complexity that humans have not witnessed previously. We don’t yet know how things will play out, but we can make some pretty educated guesses—which is the point of the novel, especially in terms of the future of language and communication.
First, the novel takes the advent of implantable neuroprosthetic technology, and imagines the very real possibility that within the next 100 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.
As further context, it is worth pointing out that science fiction has a track record of successfully predicting aspects of the future. For instance, the work of Isaac Asimov, from 1940 onwards, successfully predicted some aspects of the rise of AI and its inherent dangers for humans, in terms of his Robot series of books and stories. William Gibson, in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, coined the term “cyberspace” and predicted some of the issues and dangers that would arise.
In 2015, a wide array of leading researchers, economists and even captains of industry, warned, in an Open Letter and accompanying report, against the new dangers of AI. 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 that The Babel Apocalypse predicts.
Moreover, The Babel Apocalypse then works through the consequences of this ‘what if’ scenario, and examines the consequences of the language streaming future it predicts. Q: Can you provide a high-level explanation of what streaming language technology is? Would future neural implants pick up and directly transmit electrical activity from the brain, or would they translate it into language and relay that? VE: Think of it this way. 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 WIFI internet.
Language streaming would work, in principle, in the same way. With a ‘language chip’ implanted in our brains, we will be able to ‘stream’ language from internet-in-space on demand, 24/7, direct to our heads.
And based on an individual’s level of subscription to a language streaming provider, they would be able to stream any language they chose, with any level of lexical complexity.
This means that someone could, potentially, apply for a job in any country in the world, without needing to be concerned about knowing the local language—they just stream it, in real time. Rather than having to learn a new language, the individual would just draw upon the words and grammar they need, to function ‘in’ the chosen language, by syncing to a language database, stored on a server in space. And call it up, over the internet, in real time, as they think and talk. It means that everything someone needs to know, to be able to use a language, is streamed over the internet, rather than being stored in someone’s head.
Hence, adding a new language to one’s subscription would allow a resident of the USA or the UK to instantly understand and produce say, Japanese, and work in Tokyo.
And in terms of learning the specialist terms required for different professions, such as that of a brain surgeon, rocket scientist, or tort lawyer, it would be a simple matter of paying an additional monthly sub to have access to specialized terms for such professions.
The only restriction on new job opportunities, living and working in any geographical location, or even being able to fall in love with someone from a foreign country on the other side of the planet, would be money—how much someone is able and willing to pay, in terms of a monthly service agreement.
Of course, for this new ecosystem to gain traction, as predicted in The Babel Apocalypse, big tech would need to lead with the initial investment, once the value of the product has been established. And there are significant initial costs, in terms of implanting the body-borne hardware.
The Babel Apocalypse imagines the process beginning with a public referendum, in California, after which all adults must undergo “chipping”. And there would be a transitional generation, as minors also undergo language chipping at the age of eighteen, and newborns at birth, moving forward. And from there, with the initial benefits of language streaming would range from a dramatic decrease in crime, due to population registration via streaming, to the immediate detection of responsibility for crime, to security improvements. These security protocols would take the form of unique ‘voice prints’, making areas of individual and civic life safer, from unlocking homes, to processing bank accounts.
Hence, what would begin as an “experiment” would gain momentum. Other states and nations would soon embrace the new technology. And in the initial stages, it would appear that the new technology was a win-win, with no losers.
In terms of hardware required, first there would be an implantable language chip—connected to the major language areas of the brain (Broca’s area—responsible for language production, assembling the neural code that underpins speech, by controlling the motor cortex, and facilitating mouth movements etc., and Wernicke’s area—which is the area responsible for understanding what is being heard).
Second, there would be a WIFI transceiver, most likely an ear implant—similar to the technology being developed by Neuralink—which would facilitate bi-directional streaming signals, between the brain’s language chip and language servers that encircle the globe, via an internet-from-space system—the very systems that are currently being launched by Starlink, for instance: the world's first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet capable of supporting streaming.
The ear implant would communicate with the brain’s language chip. Hence, as thoughts are processed, words in the selected language could be called up, on demand, by the individual’s brain, and produced, potentially in any modality (speech, gesture, graphical representations, such as writing, etc.)
There would also likely need to be a body-borne computing system, for the individual to control their language selections and subscriptions. In The Babel Apocalypse, this is conceived as a ‘holotab’: a holographic smart computer, eighteen centimetres wide, that can be projected on demand from the individual’s implanted wrist chip. This allows, via eye-fusion sensor tech, full eye-blink, touch and voice commands to be deployed, to control the ‘holotab’, to have the language chip switch between languages at the blink of an eye.
Q: Could such technology pick up and relay non-verbal information as well? Ideas that are pictures or non-verbal sounds, emotions, etc.? In your Psychology Today article (Are Artificially-Enhanced Minds the Future of Communication?) you note that "First, neuroprosthetic technology will need to be able to effectively communicate with the two brain areas that process language. It will also need to be able to communicate with all the areas of the brain where concepts derive—the ideas that we use language to encode and externalize. As these concepts are found literally everywhere—visual concepts arise in the visual cortex, emotion concepts in the amygdala, and so on—then the language chip would need to be connected with most areas of the brain."
VE: The short answer is yes. For two reasons. We know that language encodes and externalizes non-verbal information. When I issue an instruction to someone on how to hammer a nail, we now know from cognitive science research that the language hearer actually becomes what has been called an “immersed” experiencer. That is, their muscles, sensorimotor system, and even motor cortex activate in an attenuated form, as if actually hammering a nail. Language itself is an instruction to see, hear and feel what the speaker is conveying!
In short, as language has evolved to provide a complex symbolic means to convey what is, ultimately, non-verbal information—ranging from what we see, hear and even feel—so would language streaming technology work in the same way.
Moreover, and second, language itself is not confined to a single medium of expression. Language can be communicated in multimodal ways. While we often think of language in terms of speech, it is independent of that medium of expression. Language can be conveyed via gestures (as in signed languages), visual representation (such as the visual language Blissymbolics) or in various types of writing systems, and so on.
Hence, language streaming technology would allow humans to process speech via the auditory nerve, writing systems or gestured signs via the visual system, and so on. And in turn, it would enable us to produce language via any output channel we chose. Q: How would this sort of technology affect language? For example, if we all had neural implants, would some sort of common language develop, or would one existing language dominate, the way that English dominates the internet? Or would neural implants translate communication into the recipient's language? VE: In a future era of language-as-commodity, it is inevitable that whether a language lives or dies would be based on economics. In other words, those languages with little demand would cease to exist.
As language would be stored on servers, ready for streaming, language would, in effect, be controlled by the big tech companies that lease it back to human populations that have undergone language chipping.
The Babel Apocalypse imagines a system where language is controlled by a consortium based in California, called Unilanguage. This is modelled on the very system for vetting new emojis, which are controlled and approved by Unicode (also based in California, and controlled by just a few of the world’s leading tech firms).
One consequence would be that, as languages fall out of demand, there would be little incentive for big tech firms to continue to devote expense and server space to store them. And as populations undergo language chipping, native speakers would cease to be, and lesser used languages would simply die out.
The Babel Apocalypse imagines a future in which there are just 250 surviving languages (compared to around 7,000 today).
National governments would, inevitably, try to preserve cultural unity, while ensuring subscriptions are affordable for the poorest citizens. Hence, The Babel Apocalypse imagines a situation in which (most) states require all public security systems (referred to as VirDas—short for Virtual Digital Assistants) to run on a single state language. Hence, in France, that would be French, and in the US, it would likely be English.
In practice, this would mean that in France, say, it would be sufficient to only need to pay for a single language streaming package. And to gain entry to a supermarket, for instance, the language user would identify at the store entrance, using voice commands, by speaking into the VirDa. This technology would also mean that supermarkets are fully automated (no need for human clerks or cashiers). Label sensor fusion tech, already being trialled, would mean that a shopper’s groceries can be located with each individual customer, who would use their voice command authorization to pay for their purchase at self-checkout, prior to being “allowed” to leave the store.
Of course, there are multiple consequences of all this for language. Regional accents and dialects, being non-standard, would require more expensive streaming subscriptions—this would mean that regional accents would become status symbols. The working classes would be, in effect, priced out of their own local language varieties.
The range and variety of human language would be erased at a stroke. This has implications for identity, ethnicity, and so on.
Q: One of the predictions in The Babel Apocalypse is that there will be significant societal, ethical and civil liberty implications of language streaming technology, as individual versus state interests (in terms of population registration, crime agencies) will need to be carefully balanced. Would you elaborate upon this?
VE: The consequence of language streaming would be that, in just one generation, there would no longer be any native speakers of language left. And for those who were chipped as adults, there could be no going back anyway. After all, if voice command technology is de rigueur, to maintain access to homes, retail and checking accounts, vehicles, etc., there could be no going back. And with time, attenuation of semantic memory would mean that if anyone became unchipped, they would have lost much of their original native language ability anyway.
This means that individuals become constrained by decisions made by big tech and governments, in terms of words and lexical choice. As one example, imagine a particular state that outlaws abortion under all circumstances. Such a government might then proscribe the word “abortion” itself. Hence, say in the US, someone might stream English and not be able to describe the concept, using the word, which in effect outlaws the concept itself.
There would then be the Kafkaesque situation whereby in another English-speaking territory, where abortion remains legal, language streaming providers censor the word in one country, but not in another. This leads to a situation where autocratic regimes can abuse the technology for their own ends, controlling thought itself, by limiting freedom of expression in language.
In terms of population registration, this would become a de facto consequence of language streaming technology. A language chip would be assigned a unique serial number, encoded in metadata every few seconds as the individual’s language chip connects and communicates with the language streaming servers (via the ear implant transceiver). This means that every individual is instantly identifiable 24/7, by virtue of being linked to internet-in-space language servers.
What this means, in practical terms, is that the concept of privacy is gone forever. Everyone’s location, whom they interact with is identifiable, and with permanent records stored on file, this entails that everyone’s lives are being recorded in real time, providing a forever record of where they have ever been.
While such technology would inevitably reduce crime, it would come at a huge cost in terms of civil liberties. And it obviously means that overreach by the state is a significant danger, given how easy it would be for the state to spy on all its citizens all the time.
Q: How might language-streaming technology be misused by governments or companies? For example, would governments eventually have the power to curtail dissent simply by preventing certain words or phrases from being transmitted? (This is the idea behind NewSpeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four). Would we be vulnerable to hackers who could transmit gibberish or false information?
VE: “They who control language control everything.” Those are the words of Prof. Ebba Black, one of the book’s protagonists, and the last native speaker in the automated world.
In The Babel Apocalypse, as language is controlled by big tech, and policed by Unilanguage, a body in California, words and even languages can be “proscribed”—removed from streaming services. At a stroke, a word could be deleted, and an entire population would no longer have access to it, or know of its (former) existence.
One good example in the book is ‘Old Standard’, once the standard variety of English in the Old Kingdom (aka England), as that country has been downgraded to a ‘Tier Two’ state. The consequence is that at the outset of the book, it is no longer possible to stream the English variety once spoken in England. Hence, the North American Standard is adopted instead.
Words can also be proscribed, as described above, which amounts to outlawing specific concepts, as with the ‘abortion’ example.
Of course, the fact that humans come to have hybridized or ‘smart’ brains, with language functions ‘enhanced’ by language chips, entails their brains can also be hacked. The book envisages a global language outage, caused by cyberterrorism. This leaves a significant portion of the global population with permanently disabled language chips. These individuals can no longer function in society as they have become feral, and can no longer use language.
In other cases, those responsible for the language outage, hack language chips to see and hear what other language users are experiencing. This enables blackmail, and extortion (e.g., a senior politician engaged with an S&M dominatrix thus being vulnerable to political blackmail, to ensure new laws are passed that potentially further serve corporate interests at the expense of individuals). And it also makes it possible for cyberterrorists to cause language chips to explode, leading to death of the individuals targeted. Q: You also predict voices being embedded with metadata that would serve as a form of identification. But since this would be synthetic rather than a natural characteristic (such as fingerprints), couldn't it be easily forged?
VE: In principle, the use of language streaming in The Babel Apocalypse makes identification totally secure, which is a key “selling point” to persuade an entire population to move across to language streaming, and undergo the medical procedure involved.
A unique serial number, a ‘sec-code’ (short for security code, much like a unique IP address, only for an individual’s head), is associated with each language chip. This is detected, in streaming metadata each time the language chip connects with the language streaming servers (every few seconds).
The ‘sec-code’ is transmitted each time someone speaks, and is “read” or “parsed” by a language streaming “orb”. This is the technology that voice command protocols work on, in the book. What this means is that a front door, to a home, for instance, can be unlocked by a voice command. But due to the metadata encoded in the spectral signature of the individual’s voice print, only the individual’s voice command can be used for unlocking purposes.
Moreover, live voice data is required. The voice print is lost if it’s recorded—much in the same way that DRM security protocols today prevent electronic files from being shared to unintended recipients. Hence, it is not possible to record someone else’s spoken voice command to play it back to unlock a door, for example. The individual must be present and only live or viva voce voice commands will work. This maintains the security of the system.
Q: Is it possible that there might be a societal backlash against streaming language technology? Luddites who refuse to get implants or who find a way to disconnect the devices in them or in others?
VE: Absolutely. A central conceit of The Babel Apocalypse focuses on Ebba Black, who leads a cyberterrorist organization that seeks to disconnect people from language streaming technology. She and her team have developed a surgical means to “untether” people’s language chips, at a dedicated lab in a place called Freetown. Her hope is to gradually restore language to the people, to make it again for the people.
Ebba Black also remains unchipped. Due to a loophole in lang-law where she grew up, she was able to evade being chipped, as explained in the book’s Prologue.
Finally, not all countries and population centers will undergo mandatory chipping. One of the changes that will likely occur in the next one hundred years will be the rise of automation, leading to mass unemployment, especially for manual job functions. The Babel Apocalypse imagines a situation whereby countries have adopted mass automation fully, or only to degrees, or not at all. Some countries, classed as Tier Three are largely unautomated. Hence, there is limited or zero penetration of language streaming uptake in those countries, and people continue to learn language the old fashioned way—much as different territories today have differential smart phone and internet take up.
But the book envisages that most of the industrialized world (Tier One) is fully automated, and language chipping and streaming is mandated by law.
Q: What would be the effect of streaming language on other aspects of human life and health?
VE: This is an issue to be explored in later books in the series. The focus in the first book, The Babel Apocalypse is on the global disaster that ensues when a large section of the world’s population can no longer communicate, at a stroke.
The second book in the series, The Dark Court, to be published in 2024, explores how the language streaming technology can be hacked, leading to a global insomnia pandemic.