Babel

May 8, 2009 at 6:59 pm (Imagination) (, , , )

I’ve had a story idea swirling in my head, let me know what you think.

History

It of course started with Babel, God’s lingual confusion divided the people.  Though through time communication improved.  There were great strides to improving flow of ideas without reference to language or location.  Even in 20th century there were dialects and ultimately even more divisive, technical speak.  As people became more educated they grew further apart as the language of their field became the language of their lives.  Being a technical age, it was just another problem to be solved by good old fashioned engineering.

UTR’s Birth and Integration

At its inception, Thoughspeak Technologies knew the basics of translation had remained unchanged for centuries, this would change.  One of the start ups in the early 21st century, they leveraged the open source community to develop and maintain “Thoughtspeak” and the releated protocols.  Translation became the hottest job overnight.  Anyone who could speak a language were called on to refine “Thoughtspeak” to be the best translator possible.  Thoughtspeak was a universal language data format that contained sounds for all of the concepts of the world’s languages with the ability for it to grow and add new ones.

Enter the Universal Thoughtspeak Recipricator, pronounced “utter”, the incarnation of Thoughtspeak.  During UTR’s development, it was already hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Post-Modern World.  At the heart of UTR was the highly efficient Thoughspeak.

UTR1

UTR1

The first UTR was simple.  It would learn a speaker’s language and translate it into the hearer’s language. Massive memory and processing requirements made it large.  Missionaries were one of the first to purchase this new device.  The ability to avoid miscommunication during first introductions to a foreign society as well as expediting translation of the Good Book into the tongue, proved worth the large price tag.   Ambassadors were also adopted UTR to help facilitate learning their assigned language.  One of the first largest orders, were with ERs worldwide.  Knowing what the situation that caused the injury saved lives.

Despite its huge benefits, there were some serious flaws to UTR1.  Yes, the size was definitely a problem.  Long translation time were another.  Even with UTR1s simple usage, this soon was found to be inadequate, since both languages were long there was unnecessary lag time between talking.

UTR2

UTR2

Instead, you could use two UTR2s where one was translating from the speaker’s language into Thoughtspeak and the listening UTR2 would translate it from Thoughspeak to the listener’s language.  This was the big breakthrough.  Size was instantly reduced.  Not only did it drastically improve translation times, now the UTR2 didn’t need to learn every language in the world, it just needed to learn its speaker very well.  Cameras were added soon after.  Non-verbal communication, was more important than originally surmised for translation. The UTR2 could detect sarcasm, anger, fear, and anything that would need to go into the tone of the translation. Everyone reacts to these emotions differently and the UTR2 would discover that and make the proper adjustments. Tourists grasped on to the new smaller device.  Having the smaller version allowed travelers to visit and save a ton of time not having to learn their destination’s language(s).  Business men also started using the device.  Talking to clients in such an easy way facilitated easier personal communication.

Later came the UTR4 with reading/writing capabilities.  This also meant networking.  Due to privacy concerned, the UTR2s were

UTR3

UTR4

simply peer-to-peer allowing only contact with other UTRs in the area for the sole purpose of exchanging language files, “Thoughtfiles”,to speed translation.  With the added reading/writing capabilities, there was also the option to download any language file for any foreign language from the Internet. Anything written now could either be read out loud in the listener’s chosen voice or could be read on the UTR4’s screen.  This was instantly picked up by academics world over.  Reading texts in their original language, translated not only into the reader’s chosen language, but also customized to how the reader communicates.

The natural upgrade from there was cell phone integration.  From there on it was assumed that everyone who had access to a cellphone, could communicate with or in any language.  Features were added for the blind, mute, and deaf.  This effectively made the job of translation, thoroughly obsolete.

The Response

Due to the demand for schools to teach more, in less time, with less money, schools started making cuts.   Foreign language classes were the first casualty.

The United States and European schools employed UTRs for students who hadn’t learned the native tongue, allowing them to get the lectures in their own language.  The students were allow to keep the devices, which was far cheaper than having alternative language classes.  Traditional language barriers were being broken down for Hispanics in America and Romas in Europe among countless others.  Generations of lost opportunity for families was being broken.  Schools found that expenses related to students with learning disabilities could be lessened as well.  Why would a dyslexic need to learn to write properly if they are just going to use an UTR and no one will know?  Any social stigma would also be made non-existent.

Writers were skeptical.  On one hand, this device was redefining what language was, thus killing their high view of language mechanics.  On the other, all of their works could be now read by anyone who had an UTR.  The savvy among them saw another opportunity, books could be written in a visual version of Thoughtspeak, instantly dubbed Thoughtwrite, that would allow writing not only their intended words, but also their intended matching emotions.  This was pivotal.  Much as a book on tape brings a book alive through the personality of the reader, this did that even more so communicating the emotion as the reader experiences it.

Browser support for Thoughwrite was added for E-books.  This was found so effective that the Internet itself soon followed.  Now the entire Web was available in any language for everyone.  Small business who hadn’t the resources to offer their site in more than their native tongue now could reach the entire world through no effort of their own.  Large corporations could now make their intent more colloquial to reach a wider base.

The poets and songwriters were the loudest and most legitimate in their complaints.  What does “rhyme” mean with this new paradigm?  Although, anyone could read their and their predecessor’s poetry/songs, the sounds were lost in the translation.  The UTR could read the poetry so a reader could hear how it sounded, but this was a pale reflection of the original intent.

Countries like India (who has more than 64 different spoken languages) were getting as many UTRs as could be produced.  Before farmers had to hirer translators in order to do trade.  This was no longer a barrier.  The entire world was their new market, with no communication barriers in their way.

Waring nations had new ways of expressing not only their general dissatisfaction in their “enemy” but discover what they had in common.  Waring nations peoples’ blogs, now readily accessible, were making inroads to negotiation that years of political maneuvering had never begun to accomplish.

Society was reeling from the new technology.  The possibilities were endless.  This allowed for personal pubic languages.  They were personal, in that only one person spoke it and it was known only to them, but public in that it could be understood by anyone with an UTR to listen.

Two men on opposite sides of the globe had trained their UTRs to translate their non-verbal minute motions for them.  Their highly broadcasted “conversation” was publicized as the beginnings of telepathy.

As more people adopted the UTR The most controversial step that was taken was removing even native language classes, stopped teaching mechanics and focused more on ideas and organization.  Thoughtspeak dictionaries/encyclopedias were readily available to look up foreign concepts, but the words used to describe them became inconsequential.  As “spell-check” made it possible for the worst spellers to spell correctly, the UTR did this for communication.  Although organization was important, intent was instantly easy to communicate.

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4 Comments

  1. Jonathan said,

    I don’t think this would work well in the real world; so much of what we call “language” is not just a sequence of words that define an abstract concept but also the sum of centuries of cultural context buildup. For instance, when Kelly and I went to Africa, I put together a slideshow of what life in America was like for the children in Africa to watch, and I stuck some sarcastic captions on some of the photos. I expected the kids to laugh when they read the captions, but they didn’t–not because they didn’t understand the concept being communicated (I was speaking through a translator) but because it wasn’t funny to them. It would have been nice to have a UTR that would have made a similarly funny statement in Zulu, but that statement would not have had the same meaning as the one I wrote. I think language is a fanastically complicated problem we’ll still be working on for decades.

    At any rate, this is a very interesting thought experiment! Thanks. 🙂

  2. mollyjo said,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I was just telling my brother how on a missions trip to the Czech Republic we were singing “Shout to the Lord.” This is another example of something that doesn’t translate directly very well. The meaning turns into “Yell at the Lord” which has a different meaning.

    Although I agree that language has meaning that comes from culture, it also has meaning that is personal. I think this is part of the “hick”, “city slicker” jokes. If a translation tool studied the listener, I think meaning could be communicated much better. If that fails, the listener could do what we’ve been doing for centuries, asking the speaker/outside reference for clarification.

    Too much fun! =) Thank you for your response.

  3. Ben said,

    Hey Molly,
    I FINALLY got around to reading this post. It’s been in my Google reader since you wrote it and I keep hitting “keep unread” for a time (like now) when I had more time to go over it.

    I love the idea! It’s like the birth of the Star Trek communicator device.

    Several things you might want to think about if you were to turn this into a full on Sci-fi story. 1. Missionaries are rarely / NEVER at the cutting edge of anything. (I know, I am an IT guy for a mission organization) Most likely what you’d have at first with UTR1 would be business integration as the tech would be expensive and the financial buy-in and ROI would be something that only wealthy businessmen could afford. (Let me put it this way, iPods are still too expensive/ technologically advanced for some groups I work with)

    You might even have the government adopt this (for military purposes) first. I mean that was what the internet was originally. It might get wide-spread military use (interrogation and peace keeping) along with business use. It would really be a pretty expensive “buy in” at first and people would most likely doubt it for a while. We’re probably looking at something like a generation and a half before you had complete acceptance. (A nice comparison might be the cell phone and how quickly it was integrated into society.)

    I think what you have here is a pretty good start to something that you could really flesh out and make quite entertaining. You’d have to figure out a bit of conflict but I could see this “story” being written as a kind of Time magazine retrospective on the history of UTR or an article on the maker of UTR as “Man of the Decade” detailing him and the rise of UTR. (I can see a first New York Times blog entry on it: UTR Foolishness?)

    I think your writing style lends itself to a more article type thing or “Wikipedia entry from the future” type “story”

    Please let me know if you need anyone to bounce ideas off of or edit anything. I love doing that stuff in my free time!

    ~Ben

  4. mollyjo said,

    Thank you for your encouragement! It has been something I’ve been thinking about for awhile and figured I would get it blogged! Sorry about the length (this was the edited version, which shows you the limits of my skills.)

    I agree with you the military and high-end businesses would be the first in line for UTRs.

    For military, I think the first UTR makes the most sense. Here is a device that can be easily wiped if needed and will not leak any secrets.

    A first generation UTR may not have comparable translation ability to a human translator. I think high end businesses who have massive amounts of translation to do would be willing, or a rung down on the business ladder who have the knowledge, but don’t already have the skills in the company for translation.

    I would have to disagree with you on missionaries in the past not embracing technology. I’m always amazed where Christianity has adopted technology ahead of some of the other “institutions”. Printing press, improved navigation to the Americas, and radio are all mediums where Christianity has adopted technology, where it may seemed surprising at the time. I appreciate that sometimes this isn’t the case, and perhaps you are right, mission agencies may not be the first generation candidates, but I don’t see them waiting too long if it really did aide them in getting the Bible into the hands of unreached people groups in a quicker fashion.

    Adoption curves are interesting. I think I read somewhere that the iPod has one of the steepest adoption curves ever (which surpassed the previous steepest one which was the telephone). I think that UTR full adoption would really come from schools. They seem to have the most to gain.

    Honestly, I have no idea how I would turn this into an actual story. I also hate man-vs-machine stories (too much Asimov I think). So personally, I’d prefer a man-vs-man. If a society truly was dependent on UTRs for everyday communication, you would have a group of people making sure no viruses take it down (that would be Babel indeed!) New technologies in general have so many natural enemies of resistance to change and cost/benefit problems. Something that fundamentally changed how we communicate would have even more. Writers, historians, musicians, would be naturally reticent for such a change. I don’t know.

    Thank you for your comment! I’m really not sure how I would expand this. I have always wondered how the Star Trek plot device of the Universal Translator would actually be adopted, and this is my humble suggestion. If only the technology was there!

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