Thursday, April 24, 2008

Universal 'babelfish' could translate alien tongues

Deacon argues that no matter how abstract a symbol becomes, it is still grounded in physical reality because it refers to "indexical" words -- words we use to point directly to objects in the real world. That limits the number of relationships it can have with other symbol words. In turn, this defines the grammatical structure that emerges from stringing words together.

If that is true, then in the distant future it might be possible to invent a gadget that uses complex software to decode alien languages on the spot, Deacon said.

What if William Burroughs was right and language is an organism independent of the human nervous system? What if we're merely hosts?

Lately I've been almost painfully aware of thinking in words. How strange consciousness must have been before the invention of language; indeed, there's a theory that humans were effectively self-less zombies until the advent of words. Maybe we exist in a symbiotic relationship with the Word Virus, in which case my fear is that we've allowed language to eclipse more intuitive methods of imparting and extracting information. Nick Herbert's rather romantic notion of "quantum tantra" would seem to be an alternative worth investigating . . .


intense said...

"What if William Burroughs was right and language is an organism independent of the human nervous system? What if we're merely hosts?"

If we're hosts to anything viral in nature, it's our DNA, and the "reproductive imperative."

[We are the virus, in a way. And look where that's gotten us. We have eaten the planet alive. Language isn't some free-floating virus--it's a tool.]

Burroughs is not right about language being some "virus" independent of the human nervous system. It is a human invention.

Think about it--does language exist independent of the mind and our use of it to convey information? I say no. If you think so, say how and why. I'd be quite interested.

This "Burroughsian" concept is nothing more than a fashionable intellectual conceit, an idea, with no basis in actual fact that I'm aware of.

As for developing a "universal translator" for communication with an advanced non-human intellect, that too is somewhat absurdly anthropocentric.

If some form of advanced non-human, sophisticated, intellect wants to communicate with us, I suspect they could do so easily.

If some cases of "alien contact" are to be believed, they already have, and the message is to stop warfare, destruction of the environment, and try to grow up within the limitations of our planetary playpen before it's too late, in order to survive and evolve.

Do we listen? Hell, no. At least, other than paying lip service. As a species, we still do what we want, regardless of the consequences. We just don't know any better, considering our primate origins. Which is why we are on the "cusp of terminal dissolution."

Get ready for a bumpy ride. Panic at the disco is coming soon...

dad2059 said...

Interesting concept ala Star Trek, but I would agree it's severely anthrocentric and conceitful. Is it a 'virus' or are we 'viruses'? Doubtful. That implies 'infection' and I'm damn sure I'm not an infection! Neither is humanity as a whole (although I consider some family relatives a 'bug' up my backside!).

Our ancient primate relatives got along quite fine without 'words' to transfer their thoughts and feelings to others in the tribe, so there just might be something to the 'words' = 'I' concept.

Watts and Schroeder could have very well hit upon something in their fiction and Burroughs' 'Universal Translator' just wouldn't work.

dmduncan said...

The problem with Deacon's claimed claim is that not all words do in fact refer to things in the physical world. This is the "picture theory of meaning" which Wittgenstein initially pursued and then rightly abandoned. The "babelfish" notion may still work for words meaning physical objects, but as for subtle internal states of mind and emotion, the proposition is trickier, and aliens may have alien emotions which do not translate, and which if so, could make understanding them on the most important level very hard.

Derek C. F. Pegritz said...

I call Complete and Utter Bullshit.

Human language is nothing more than a system or organized sounds, gestures, and images created by the Human brain in a social setting in order to facilitate the spread of information from one individual to the next. Of course, most words/ideograms of Human language refer to real-world objects like "rocks" and "the sky"--but what about "peace"? That word/ideograph refers to a uniquely internal concept with no external concept whatsoever.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, an intelligent probe were to arrive at our planet (organics can never and will never travel between the stars, so our only visitors will ever be autonomous network units from postbiological or nonbiological species). Of course, we could easily develop a common vocabulary with the probe concerning objects and actions in the common physical reality we share. Whether a chunk of sandstone is encoded linguistically as "a chunk of sandstone" or "10:Ab:83:01:m8:CT:39" is irrelevant considering that both "words" refer to the same object or to a generalized abstraction of such objects (i.e., "chunks of sandstone").

However, what would the entirely Human-biology-based concept of "love" mean to a Machine Intelligence from Planet 01? Of course, a Human linguist could show examples of people behaving in a loving "manner" which could at least let the MInt encode "love" as a set of certain behaviors that Humans engage in with one another...but will it ever be able to translate "love" into such a fashion as it will be able to understand exactly what emotions are and how the function in Humans? Not a chance.

Communications between organic beings will ALWAYS be fraught with the inability of language to ever fully encode one organic's inner state functioning in such a way that another organic will be able to flawlessly comprehend the first's experience. For example, I am synaesthetic. I can tell you that, to me, yellow makes a horrible screeching sound (which is why I absolutely hate yellow)...but if you're nonsynaesthetic, that description is fundamentally meaningless and inaccessible to you.

The only way that intelligent species will ever possibly be capable of sharing mental states and concepts directly is by exchanging protocols for encoding data. And that can only be done if you're dealing with software-based linguistic or cognitive protocols. Organic protocols are hardwired into messy, sloppy brains. Electronic protocols are all just series of 1s and 0s. Eventually, a filter can be constructed entirely via software.

dmduncan said...

I don't think we'd be selfless zombies any more than cats or dogs are. Much simpler, immersed in non reflective being, but still conscious. My dog plays and has what seems to be a sense of humor or mischief. The birth of language and self reflective consciousness may even be what was behind the story of humankind's ejection from the Garden of Eden. Our ability to reflect on ourselves and think of ourselves as separate has certainly contributed to our alienation from the natural world. We then use science and technology to try and create an external utopia, which is doomed to fail because that approach is a symptom of the alienation we suffer from.