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Sunday, December 02, 2012

What Will Come After Language?

I just gave a talk, via Skype from Hong Kong, at the Humanity+ San Francisco conference….  Here are some notes I wrote before the talk, basically summarizing what I said in the talk (though of course, in the talk I ended up phrasing many things a bit differently...).

I'm going to talk a bit about language, and how it relates to mind and reality … and about what may come AFTER language as we know it, when mind and reality change dramatically due to radical technological advances

Language is, obviously, one of the main things distinguishing humans from other animals.   Dogs and apes and so forth, they do have their own languages, which do have their own kinds of sophistication -- but these animal languages seem to be lacking in some of the subtler aspects of human languages.  They don't have the recursive phrase structure that lets us construct and communicate complex conceptual structures.

Dolphins and whales may have languages as sophisticated as ours -- we really don't know -- but if so their language may be very different.  Their language may have to do with continuous wave-forms rather than discrete entities like words, letters and sentences.  Continuous communication may be better in some ways -- I can imagine it being better for conveying emotion, just as for us humans, tone and gesture can be better at conveying emotion than words are.  Yet, our discrete, chunky human language seems to match naturally with our human cognitive propensity to break things down into parts, and with our practical ability to build stuff out of parts, using tools.

I've often imagined the cavemen who first invented language, sitting around in their cave speculating and worrying about the future changes their invention might cause.  Maybe they wondered whether language would be a good thing after all -- whether it would somehow mess up their wonderful caveman way of life.  Maybe these visionary cavemen foresaw the way language would enable more complex social structures, and better passage of knowledge from generation to generation.  But I doubt these clever cavement foresaw Shakespeare, William Burroughs, Youtube comment spam, differential calculus, mathematical logic or C++ ….   I suppose we are in a similar position to these hypothetical cavemen when we speculate about the future situations our current technologies might lead to.  We can see a small distance into the future, but after that, things are going to happen that we utterly lack the capability to comprehend…

The question I want to pose now is: What comes after language?  What's the next change in communication?

My suggestion is simple but radical: In the future, the distinction between linguistic utterances and minds is going to dissolve.

In the not too distant future, a linguistic utterance is simply going to be a MIND with a particular sort of cognitive focus and bias.

I came up with this idea in the course of my work on the OpenCog AI system.  OpenCog is an open-source software system that a number of us are building, with the goal of  eventually turning it into an artificial general intelligence system with capability at the human level and beyond.  We're using it to control intelligent video game characters, and next year we'll be working with David Hanson to use it to control humanoid robots.

What happens when two OpenCog systems want to communicate with each other?  They don't need to communicate using words and sentences and so forth.  They can just exchange chunks of mind directly.  They can exchange semantic graphs -- networks of nodes and links, whose labels and whose patterns of connectivity represent ideas.

But you can't just take a chunk of one guy's mind, and stick it into another guy's mind.   When you're merging a semantic graph from one mind, into another mind, some translation is required -- because different minds will tend to organize knowledge differently.  There are various ways to handle this.

One way is to create a sort of "standard reference mind" -- so that, when mind A wants to communicate with mind B, it first expresses its idiosyncratic concepts in terms of the concepts of the standard reference mind.   This is a scheme I invented in the late 1990s -- I called it "Psy-nese."   A standard reference mind is sort of like a language, but without so much mess.  It doesn't require thoughts to be linearized into sequences of symbols.  It just standardizes the nodes and links in semantic graphs used for communication.

But Psynese is a fairly blunt instrument.  Wouldn't it be better if a semantic graph created by mind A, had the savvy to figure out how to translate itself into a form comprehensible by mind B?  What if a linguistic utterance contained, not only a set of ideas created by the sender, but the cognitive capability to morph itself into a form comprehensible by the recipient?  This is weird relative to how language currently works, but it's a perfectly sensible design pattern…

That's my best guess at what comes after language.  Impromptu minds, synthesized on the fly, with the goals of translating particular networks of thought into the internal languages of various recipients.

If I really stretch  my brain, I can dimly imagine what such a system of thought and communication would be like.  It would weave together a group of minds into an interesting kind of global brain.  But we can't foresee the particulars of what this kind of communication would lead to, any more than a bunch of cavemen could foresee Henry Miller, reddit or loop quantum gravity.

Finally, I'll pose you one more question, which I'm not going to answer for you.  How can we write about the future NOW, in a way that starts to move toward a future in which linguistic utterances and minds are the same thing?


Matt Mahoney said...

Step 1 was speech. Step 2 was writing. There are still some ideas that we cannot communicate with language, like what a person's face looks like, what a chemical you have never smelled before smells like, or how to ride a bicycle. Future language should solve these problems.

Anonymous said...

Mind will still need symbols to communicate.

Anonymous said...

The borders of my language are the borders of my world.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein --

Anonymous said...

A less radical vision:

Anonymous said...

If minds will be much more connected in the future the need for a language as we perceive it now will be lessened, and this will happen also to the need to adapt a message to convey it to another mind... the way my mind communicates with my own mind will be in a large degree the way a mind will communicate with another mind! But it's not the end of the story because we don't know how much individual minds will remain the same and how much they will be adapted and organize when they are connected, some degree of specialization/standardization will probably happen to every individual mind! So the need for a language will persist and it will depend largely at the level of the connection between minds... will it a be at a neuron scale? if so the language will be based on electric impulses and neurotransmitters... and also will depend on the interface for the connection of minds... and finally the global mind structure, goals, external environment and the evolution of these will have the final word in shaping this future language!

Anonymous said...

I love this idea, and it makes me think of how we interact already. If I'm explaining a concept to my grandmother, I don't use the same phrases I would right down on a post it note to explain it to myself.

In a sense what you're suggesting is empathy, the attempt to bridge the gap between the mental states of self and other. Rather than using a third party, it's facilitating a version of self to which other can better relate.

Scott Bakker said...

This is a speculative gem. The truly difficult aspect of this problem is that we don't even know what HUMAN language is. It could be the case (I would argue it is the case) that the 'language information' available for human metacognition is merely the skin of what it is our brains are actually doing.

It's possible that once you strip away all of our intentional intuitions (reference, normativity, etc), natural language might actually look surprisingly familiar to an engineering type.

Something like this might soon be the case:

Andrew Soltau said...

I would say that the way to start was with an interface we are familiar with. As anon said "the way my mind communicates with my own mind will be in a large degree the way a mind will communicate with another mind!"

This is very easy to conceptualise as a practical first step. One has an implant connection to an interface that has a representation of a visual and auditory display, exactly as we are used to using a pc. The user then has to learn to detect the interface, and then make shapes on the virtual screen and sounds in the virtual speaker. Presumably learning to detect and use the interface would be facilitated if the interface imitated the outputs of the visual and auditory centres in the brain rather than digital. The target is to be able to form pictures on the screen and speech in the audio channel.
Once that step is mastered, a second identical interface is connected in, and the user learns to read this interface as they learned to write the first one. (In practice steps one and two would probably be the other way around.)
Once two users started to communicate on this interface, all kinds of optimisations would occur.
There would already be a new language of sorts because one could 'talk pictures' and even movies. It seems likely that from this starting point the language would evolve, adding new V&A 'words'. Out of these, standards could be derived, then honed, then offered as the ideal beginner interface language, over and above standard video and audio. So this would be the definition of a mind to mind Esperanto. The standard video and audio would also doubtless acquire a whole raft of optimisations which could similarly be evolved into a standard. This would not only be a sophisticated interface specification, it would serve as the 'standard reference mind' in Ben's scenario. In my version it would be a kind of mindset that the user would come to grips with intuitively, and continue to develop until it was entirely natural. (This would mean that the morphing requirement was not needed. This seems like a major plus as the morphing is an additional component of the situation that must inherently have the capacity to distort the communication in ways unintended; and it would take processing time.)
By acquiring a standard reference mind faculty one would automatically have access to full basic communication on the system. In the process of all this, as users became more and more accustomed to the system, they would become accustomed to formulating thoughts on the interface intuitively, which is the point at which the system would really take off for that user. It would eventually become as natural to use as the ordinary imagination. The interface would become an imagination-second-screen. (It might even be more 'vivid', meaning more like the ordinary perception of reality, than the ordinary imagination.)
At this point the individual is a node of a network of minds that can interact with and contribute to the network as naturally as thinking. The final adaptation would be combining the two channels into one, melding the imaginative process with another mind or minds. Then we would have something totally new on the planet.
(This would be a system in which linguistic utterances and minds are the same thing. I think this answers Ben's question, but not on quite the basis he proposed. On the other hand, the V&A words could be developed into complex forms like software objects, which would have the capability to unpack themselves in different ways, adapting themselves to whatever system they arrived in. This gets quite close to the scenario in some sf where a personalty construct is sent to communicate with someone. Taken to a logical extreme, I guess in the end you really would have total loss of boundary between the concepts of mind and linguistic utterances.

Michael Garfield said...

I too have thought that the transfer of entire or partial minds seems to be a higher-bandwidth, more combinatorial (/syntactic) version of what we're already doing. Direct transcranial magnetic induction or LED/laser-induced neural firing patterns seem likely places for us to start, technologically speaking.

There's also the notion that I am a part of speech, or a phrase, in a transpersonal ecological language. From the perspective of our DNA, or the wave function from which we precipitate, each of us is an argument tested in the living conversation of reality.

Have you read Embassytown by China Miéville? Fabulous science fiction exploring an alien language in which concrete situations and human actors are literally assimilated – made into similes, that is. It's a mixed blessing to be a crucial part of a language that you cannot speak, but which speaks through you...

That book also features an apocalyptic event in which the structure of that alien language - and consequently, their minds - is changed irrevocably.

Worth reading if you're interested in these ideas.

Anonymous said...

Something close to this, but only related to the visual brain, was discussed here Spacebook, a facebook for space . You may be interested in the tags "graphic lambda calculus" and "computing with space" from my blog.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't think that today's languages are too limited in the scope what they can communicate. A more relevant question is whether any natural language that exists today fits the moral standards that will be necessary in the future. I'm pretty sure that English doesn't fit the requirements. Although almost all research these days is published in English and nobody complains about this research being immoral, it's a completely different question whether the commercialisation or monetization of this research can be done ethically using the english language.

Alejandro Escudero said...

How did we think about everything before we learned to talk??

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