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September 28, 2021

Speaking Martian: The Future of Communication

The future can be a scary thing to envision—shrouded in mystery, and murky at best. The way we communicate has changed so much over the past 100 years, so how could we ever imagine where we'll be in 100 more?

There are many topics that pique our interest, but none so prevailing as technology and innovation. Each step forward in our development throughout time has been ushered in by some new invention that reimagined life as it was before. There's an essence of magic and mystery that engulfs science and technology—with magicians taking advantage of the principles of physics, biology, chemistry and even psychology to trick their subjects. What's more, among early filmmakers were a host of magicians anxious to make use of this new 'trick' called the cinematograph—if only they could see the augmented and virtual reality of present day.

Shrouded in mystery—our inquisitive nature has always drawn us to the 'what ifs' that technology brings. Among the most prevalent of which in society are the innovations that shape the way we communicate. From smartphones and laptops, to brain-computer interfaces and machine learning for translation—the way we experience the world is, and has been for quite some time, changing, whether you like it or not.

Not so lost in translation

Advancements in technology have completely redefined what it means to connect and communicate with one another (and, no, we're not talking about social media for once). We now have, at our fingertips (battery life permitting), the ability to translate languages in real time from anywhere (data permitting) on the planet.

Machine translation has improved significantly since its inception in the early 1990s, and with better translation comes better communication. Of course, there are still some nuances and contexts that may not be picked up by a machine, but the ability to respond could have great implications for the future of business, travel and connection. Imagine a world in which you could go anywhere, and talk to anyone about anything that tickles your fancy.

AI can now read lips with an accuracy of 95.2% using LipNet.), an artificial intelligence system, succeeding the previous frontrunner at 86.4%, and completely outstripping even the most experienced human lip readers. Though there's some speculation based on video quality—this has incredible implications for the hearing-impaired, if adopted by corporations.

And, it's not just human languages we're translating. Move over Doctor Doolittle—because in 2014 researchers identified terms used by Campbell's monkeys to signal predators in Ivory Coast's Tai Forest. Using "the term 'krak' to indicate that a leopard is nearby, and 'hok' to warn others that there’s an eagle circling overhead. Notably, the paper asserts that the primates use krak-oo and hok-oo to signify less serious ground and air threats. They also said boom when the coast was clear again." The team made some logical inferences to determine this (well, they couldn't exactly ask the monkeys—yet), so more research is needed, but the discovery itself is astounding.

Speaking the language of neurons

Brain-computer interface has been around for decades, but as technology advances we see evermore improvements and applications for this incredible area of study. As small electric signals zap between neurons at up to 250mph, some of them escape—which can then be detected and interpreted. What's more, this can be done in reverse, by sending the chosen signals back into the mind of the subject.

Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology were the first to architect a system that could not only decode brain activity by having their subjects speak, but also translate those signals back into words. Recently, a team of scientists made a breakthrough regarding brain-to-text, by having the subjects mentally write out the character, instead of the tradition mouse cursor that had been used. This not only increases vocabulary, but also speed, allowing a new depth of expression for those living in 'trapped brains'. In the future, we may even possess technology capable of sending our thoughts directly to another's brain.

These recent developments are striking because processing visual information happens to be much more complex than audio information—despite the general principles being the same. Artificial eyes are, however, being produced—though the vision they produce is far from perfect. But as with anything—refinement, advancements, and time will produce greater and greater iterations. So, what does all this mean for the future?

Is this real life, or is this just fantasy?

As we march on toward the future, it can be both daunting and exciting to envision what will come of life and technology. One, seemingly tangible route would be the application of augmented and virtual reality—directly to the mind. As we've seen as a trope in Sci-Fi throughout time, we may also 'see' in real life, not just through glasses, but potentially utilising BCI to map the images directly into the brain.

With augmented and virtual reality applications come a myriad of ethical dilemmas—beyond visiting far-off destinations and playing Pokemon Go like Alakazam; there will always be people wanting to use the information for unsavoury purposes. Imagine walking down the street, and as a stranger walks by you see their name, Facebook profile, Instagram handle and more. Well, actually, you don't need to leave much to the imagination, since the technology to do so is already in development.

What's more, the recently interest in Deepfake (AI software that can seamlessly superimpose another's face onto your own in real time) could heighten these growing concerns. If we are heading towards a world of augmented reality, what's to stop others from using this incredibly advanced technology maliciously? As Henry Adjer put it “This could range from adult streamers ‘wearing’ celebrities’ faces without consent, to biometric spoofing such as fooling facial recognition and liveness detection systems.”

To fall inwards, or venture out

The future, still so shrouded in a cloak of mystery, continues to capture us—and as we look forward, it's always good to take everything with a pinch of salt. After all, no-one can really predict the future, we can only make educated, logical predications. Since communication is, and always has been, constantly evolving—we may not even be equipped to fathom what future connection will look like.

One far off potential avenue for human life would be the Matrioshka Brain. Robert Bradbury drew on Freeman Dyson's envisioned Dyson Spheres that encased a star to harness it's energy. Bradbury furthered this concept, and theorised that the spheres could be used to power a super computer. Around the star would be nested spheres, each drawing energy and passing off excess to the outer shells.

And what, you ask, could this computer be used for? Well, among Science Fiction aficionados, the structure could be used to upload our consciousness—and experience life eternally. It could be programmed to never feel pain, and live indefinitely with only happy memories. Or, it could be just as life is today—feeding us with simulated sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch that are indistinguishable from 'real' life. The potency of this theory begs the question, are we living in a simulation now? And, how would we ever know?

Maybe you're not convinced, and think that humanity will not retreat inward to the caves of virtual reality, but venture out to the stars—nomadic voyagers crossing the Universe in search of life. This concept has been touted throughout Science Fiction, however they may run into issues if they chose to ever return. Generation upon generation, all born to die for a mission they'd not even willingly signed up for. In the years that passed onboard, the language spoken would be incoherent back on Earth—just as Old English is practically incoherent to us.

That said, at the very least, we are linked to the Vikings (and so, their tongue) through environment. With a new spacefaring civilisation, novel experiences would soon become commonplace, phrases and words would shift, and even the grammar could take on a new form. When we eventually embark on these incredible missions, it'd be best to take a linguist, or two for good measure, so that Earth-dwelling humans might understand what's being dubbed Lingua Astra.

Wherever you think we'll be in a few millennia, there's no doubt things will be worlds apart. The way we communicate has shifted so drastically in these past few decades, it's now become impossible to envision a future that is the same as today. Something as simple as video-chat would be almost incomprehensible 100 years ago—and yet, here we are, helping you do just that from the comfort of your home. Science has brought us many incredible, and life-changing advancements—and frankly, we can't wait to see what the future holds—but, here's hoping we march on with caution.

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