Computers and language are about to merge in a way never seen before and the results are likely to be interesting, and I suspect, profound.
One aspect of the near future for computers has been clear for many years and it’s the “Start Trek TNG” vision of computing. In the TNG vision of the future, people don’t have computers, people have microphones that communicate with a computer. Where or what that computer is doesn’t matter as long as it answers back when you speak to it or shows you what you need to see on whatever display is handy.
Apple’s Siri voice assistant is a clear step in this direction and shows us how the “talking computer” is closer than we would have thought possible just a few years ago.
One of the beginning steps was tackling the problem of voice recognition but the early work at Google made those guys realize that figuring out what people are saying is a piece of cake compared to figuring out what they mean. Figuring out the difference between “whirled peas” and “world peace” is one thing; understanding what “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” means is much harder. You can’t just give a computer a dictionary and expect that you’re done.
This problem of meaning is, of course, Google’s stock in trade and they are deadly serious about being the best at getting it right, because if they are, then they will be the computer you’re talking to and who is answering you back. The computer of the future may very well be Google and the only thing you own will be a microphone, a speaker, a TV and a mobile display.
Hardware, of course, is the least of the changes. This version of computing is also incredibly personal in ways most never imagine. Computers will remember every interaction you’ve ever had with them. The computer of the near future won’t just know what Shakespeare means, it will know which passages you like the best and which you might like if you’re looking for something new. Computers will know where you are, where your friends are and which friend you are most likely to call on a Thursday afternoon. They will know what you like to eat and what that means in terms of recommending a vacation spot.
As for language, Google won’t care if you speak every word of a sentence in a different language or if you make up your own words. As long as you are consistent, they’ll figure it out.
The point here is that until now, language has come from people talking to people. In the not too distant future, the “person” you talk to the most may very well not be a person at all and when one person in a conversation isn’t a person, the nature of conversation will no doubt change and it’s easy to see how that change could be profound… or not.