Yes, I like technology. But increasingly these days, I wish we could have a global debate on where we’re going with this and how much of it we want. Not as Gaels or Basques or Chinese or Brazilians but as a species.
Let me backtrack a little. We’ve just released the first ever Gaelic text-to-speech voice, having working together with the great people at Cereproc in Edinburgh over the last year. This is a good thing. It may seem to contradict my intro but the way I see it, it is an enabling tool. If nothing else, it is an assistive tool for people who are blind or dyslexic – and who speak Gaelic. We often forget that being a speaker of a minority language does not prevent you from being struck by the same issues as everyone else. Or rather, speakers of majority languages tend to forget this. It is not meant to replace real humans and it won’t, as it cannot think for itself. It won’t run off to the kitchen and make dinner or suddenly turn round and say to the user “What’s with all this Somhairle stuff, I want to read some sci-fi, ok?”
Sure, learners will use the voice too and since it is a pretty good voice, it should enhance their learning experience, especially for those with little or no access to native speakers. So I don’t see an issue there (though we did all bust several collective guts making sure the quality is as good as possible).
But a couple of days later, a colleague drew my attention to a line in a summary of a talk to be given at the Centre for Speech and Technology Research. It talks of speech production and refers to “…multimodal interactive games, involving many characters, dialogue partners…”. Queue a slightly dystopian moment. I possibly misread the line slightly what it means is AI dialogue partners in games. Like “talking” to Deckard Cain in Diablo which is really just a fixed script which is reeled off following certain actions in the game.
But whatever the intended meaning, it did make me think about the wider implications of talking technology, and in this case speech technology in particular, further and further with little debate about where we’re going with all this. I did have this quick mental flash of a Gaelic speaking Terminator, baking cookies with a human child. Don’t be absurd, you might say but I don’t think it’s entirely far-fetched. There will come a point when our use of technology in language learning will turn into something more distasteful than a toy bleating out words. There will come a point when interaction with speech produced by an intelligent machine will start to infringe on the way our children learn language and probably even adult interactions.
It may be that we decide, as a species, that a Gaelic/Basque/Aymara/Rapanui… speaking robot is just the thing to re-invigorate our languages. But to my mind, it poses a bigger question about whether this won’t make the whole thing pointless? Not just the issue of language but increasingly us as a species? Our affection for things, pretty sunsets, memories of baking biscuits with our grandmother and the particular sound waves our mothers made at us, is a very human thing. I cannot see a machine developing an appreciation for a field of dandelion other than in a utilitarian sense. Or perhaps we might decide that an intelligent interaction with a machine is preferable to the passive consumption we have at the moment, like those families I observe on the train using tablets as pacifiers. Playing I Spy with the tablet? Would I be looking at the outside of the train or a picture of the outside projected onto the screen?
We still seem to be operating, as a species, on the basis that it’s ok to see what happens when I bang these two rocks together cause hey, it’s Zoug’s own time and effort and what harm can it do. But we’re reaching a point in our technological development where the harm we can do by just seeing what happens when you bang something together is becoming considerable.
It makes me wish we talked more about what we actually want before we go out and do it. But sadly, I cannot really see it happening much, not with people going “well, if I don’t, someone else will”. Maybe I’m just having a gloomy day (no, the sun IS shining in Glasgow today) but I get the feeling we might finally be getting close to an answer to the Fermi paradox, a somewhat unpalatable one albeit. Fingers crossed, eyes closed and hope for the best?