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The mixed up, messed up notion of language

By T.J. Ray

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of Luddite is as follows: one who is opposed to especially technological change.

Beginning an essay with a definition is probably not a preferred opening gambit, although this beginning has a purpose: It is an aid to those of you who reject what I have to say. When the term was in vogue, it denoted folks who argued that automation destroys jobs. Now, a century and a half down the road of history, the evidence seems to gather on the Luddite’s side of the argument.

This week’s news brought the prediction that in such-and-such years computers will be smarter than humans. Faced with an invisible character named Siri answering questions and controlling devices, given a ride in a driverless car, having a robotic arm do delicate surgery at the command of a doctor with a keyboard, the notion sounds a bit more likely than it might otherwise.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite, who today dumped about 90 old audio CDs in a trash bin, I must, in defense of our order, shout “STOP” as long and as often as I can.

My sense is that AI (artificial intelligence) cannot transcend humans until it surpasses the single greatest achievement of the species — language.

The Bible — a book that many of us feel describes the early development of our world — leaves two unanswered mysteries. There is no tape recording of the conversations of Adam and Eve and the Creator. Nor is there a GPS known for the place they lived.

Many cultures have disparate explanations of the origin of human speech, but to date, it is just that, not at all a proof of anything. Linguists collectively argue that the development of human language was a very slow process. Processes that worked at one stage of development were modified or dropped altogether in later phases. Even sounds humans produced to express the ideas of language changed.

Thus, we find that the same anatomical parts available for human speech result in some language speakers producing speech sounds that folks from another part of the world don’t even recognize as human speech.

Somewhere in our dim past, we began to make marks to reflect what we might have said with our mouths — on wood, or clay, or finally paper. And then the digital world gave us the power to speak words and have a computer recognize them and “write” them in a recognizable alphabet or system.

Perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of humans (though the particulars may vary from peoples to peoples) is the sentence.

That seems fairly simplistic thrown out there like that. Yes, the sentence, that string of words plucked out of a brain and organized in ways that facilitate another brain’s comprehension of the meaning.

Let’s just consider English for a moment.

Here is a sentence: The men admire her.

As explained by one system of grammar, the sentence is composed of a subject and predicate (or, in another system, an NP and a VP (noun phrase and verb phrase). The NP has two components — an article (determiner) and an N. The verb phrase (predicate) also has two parts — a verb and another NP. Questions on the table from that scant data: Which determiner: a, an, the, a number? The noun, of course, has number — singular/plural. Vital to note the form the verb may take. In this case, as the noun is, in fact, plural, the verb “admire” has an -s suffix. What is the verb’s type: which determines what form may follow it? For instance, if it is a verb connecting the first noun to an unrelated noun . . . . STOP! You surely see the complexity even a simple sentence evinces. When an artificial intelligence device is capable of creating such a masterpiece, then — and only then — may someone suggest that such things surpass the intelligence of humans.

Of course, the experiment ends before it begins because the AI thing-a-mah-jig can’t do anything until it is programmed. And then there’s the added moment when we wait for the thing to speak. What language will it produce from its mechanical larynx?

Admittedly, people are capable of mixing up the system. Consider the high school student who wrote, “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.” And speakers of one language don’t always hit the target in another.

Consider the Austrian hotel that caters to skiers: “Not to perambulated in the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”

As we watch objects performing more and more acts, even more efficiently than their creators, and as we watch humans doing more and more to wreck their world and sometimes act more like animals than people, we may sort of want a Hal from “2001: A Space Odyessy” to come to lunch.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.