Why I disagree with Elon Musk’s prediction on language

The mere insinuation that a brain chip could make language obsolete cannot be ignored.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Sun 13 Jun 2021, 11:57 PM

In a recent podcast interview, Elon Musk casually said that the human language could become obsolete in five to 10 years. His statement was amplified by news headlines that declared that human language ‘will’ become obsolete in five to 10 years. A simple swap of the verb ‘could’ with ‘will’, never mind the grammar, makes all the difference. It certainly caught my attention.

The mere insinuation that a brain chip could make language obsolete cannot be ignored. Especially when it comes from the man who transformed driving and space tech, while aspiring to colonise Mars. Billionaire entrepreneur Musk makes a lot of predictions in his characteristic understated style, setting Twitterverse ablaze. He plays ‘deity’ with many people’s fortunes each time he weighs in on a cryptocurrency. During new Tesla model launches, he ties in product enhancements with the laws of physics. So, one can never take his views lightly.

One of his pet projects is Neuralink, a tech startup for brain-machine interfaces. Its fully-implantable technology will allow us to use our brains to control computing devices. This could give a new lease of life to those suffering from spinal injuries, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Neuralink‘s brain implant with its iterative advancements, promises to be transformative. This prompted its most well-known co-founder to suggest that humans won’t need to speak to one another. But I disagree with Elon, politely of course.

Language is not just our excuse for communication or our ability to express ourselves, it also carries in its kernel our identity. Wars have been fought and nations have been carved out based on languages. Some cultures are necessarily more vocal than others. But regardless of the number of alphabets, vowels or characters, language forms the emotional fabric of entire cultures. In Bangkok, when I opened my keynote speech with sawatdi kha, the audience murmured cheerfully and instantly connected. Artificial intelligence is struggling to get a grip on Arabic dialects because even simple greetings differ from country to country. In London, the Queen’s English isn’t as common as the Cockney or Estuary accents. Across the UK, English sounds different as it does in different parts of India.

There is more to speech than simple chatter. Scientists Jacob Dunn and Jeroen Smaers believe that it takes special brainpower to speak. There is a direct correlation between the architecture of the brain and our vocal complexity. This means that our complex languages with a rich inventory of words and sounds is directly linked to the size of the cortical region associated with speech. Many of our near and distance cousins in the animal kingdom have vocal tracts that are speech-ready, and yet they cannot be trained to speak beyond a point because they don’t have the necessary neural control. Somehow, they had no motivation to develop it, when humans did.

The origin of language is a speculative subject with little consensus. Language could have been the earliest technique used to further trade. When the earliest humans started to exchange seashells and beads in modern-day Algeria, they adopted symbolic behaviour because trade required complex rules and cognition. Centuries later complex languages have diverged, some ideas still get lost in translation. Perhaps, Elon’s vision of how language might devolve is lost to me. We are still struggling to find the words to express our hopes and fears.

Would the brain chip help us recover what is lost in translation? Is speech really necessary when a simple thumbs up emoji could suffice? Would it be easier to tell my dog that I would be back home soon? Can my instructions to Alexa become more precise? The millennials and the Gen Z already prefer to text than call their boomer parents. AI may tacitly change the context of words and build its own lexicon as it engineers more efficient ways for us to communicate.

So, should we be quick to dismiss Elon’s prediction? Let’s circle back to the rationale behind his prognostication. He feels that humans already have a tertiary digital layer consisting of smartphones, computers and apps. Fair point. In a sense we are already cyborgs as Instagram or Twitter have become a digital projection of our personalities. In the long run, Neuralink opens up the possibility of having telepathic communications. And if we were to stretch our imagination, our digital state could perhaps exist in a robot even after our death.

Just as I am tempted to agree with him, I get a call from a friend who describes her mixed experiences during the lockdown in India. It is hard to imagine that we will give up on the richness of great conversations without a fight. I plan to continue to speak my mind as long as I can. In 10 years, hopefully I can revisit my assertion to see who is right. I really do hope that I am.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies

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