Caliban, revolution and human rights

I’ve gone farther backwards, this time, in two directions, digging in to the origins of language, of machine language, of language machines, and the possibilities of future languages, as yet undone.

The origin of human language is always complicated, and no one has ever found an answer that can be agreed up. The French decreed that evolutionary linguistics was a forbidden topic in the 18th century, and there was quite a pause before people took it up again.

And in a bookshop last week I found Minsky’s 1968 Semantic Information Processing, which has me reading the past. Symbolic logic, cybernetics, minimal self-organizing systems, artificial intelligence, machine modeling of human behavior. It’s interesting what we have chosen to bring to the present with us. And how much Chomsky there is. Not surprising, but this is no longer a Chomskian world, I would say.

Because my interests combine language and culture, I care less about why humans have language and more about what that means, both day to day in usage, and over time.  The current American world, in this respect, is astonishing. Watching cable news, day by day, the words morph and shift in the mouths of speakers, meaning the opposite one day, then again the next. The speed is astonishing. In both my education and my life I can never recall language moving so quickly, and being so forcefully used to cleave.

But then, we all know, human memory is faulty.

I found myself going back to quotes about language, famous ones, and wondering what they would mean if uttered by or applied to, languages spoken between machines. To make this non-threatening, apply these thoughts to C3P0 and R2D2.

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

That is Oliver Sacks. We give machines the ability to modify what we teach them. They modify language, then, is this no longer, the most human invention? Or have is the machine human, does it become human, once it has language?

In earlier work I did, on dying and dead languages, it is a breach of human rights to outright kill a language. This is meant for minority populations. If two machines speak a modified language together, and a human kills it off, by re-programming, by shutting down the machines, however–is this a breach of human rights?

Remember, there was a day when half the humans on this planet did not qualify as human.

We we travel from the other side, what rights does a language have, what rights does a machine have, we do find violations. But how to validate these violations? How to even understand if they apply, outside of the thought exercise?

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