barry_c_smith's picture
Professor & Director, Institute of Philosophy School of Advanced Study University of London

Despite the inevitable decline in the environment brought by climate change, the advance of technology will steadily continue. Many pin their hopes on technological advances to lessen the worst effects of climactic upheaval and to smooth the transition between our dependence on fossil fuels and our eventual reliance on renewable energy sources. However, bit by bit, less dramatic advances in technology will take place, changing the world, and our experience of it, for ever.

It is tempting when thinking about developments that will bring fundamental change to look to the recent past. We think of the Internet and the cell phone. To lose contact with the former, even temporarily, can make one feel that one is suddenly stripped of a sense, like the temporary lose of one’s sight or hearing; while the ready supply of mobile phone technology has stimulated the demand to communicate. Why be alone anywhere? You can always summon someone’s company? Neither of these technologies is yet optimal, and either we, or they, will have to adapt to one another. The familiar refrain is that email increases our workload and that cell phones put us at the end of the electronic leash. Email can also be a surprisingly inflammatory medium, and cell phones can separate us from our surroundings, leaving us uneasy with these technologies. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. So can future technology help, or is it we who will adapt?

Workers in A.I. used to dream of the talking typewriter and this is ever closer closer to being an everyday reality. Why write emails when you can dictate them? Why read them when you can listen to them being read to you, and do something else? And why not edit as you go, to speed up the act of replying? All this will come one day, no doubt, perhaps with emails being read in the personalized voice patterns of their senders. Will this cut down on the surprisingly inflammatory and provocative nature of email exchanges? Perhaps not.

However, the other indispensable device for communicating, the cell phone, is far from adaptive. We hear, unwanted, other people’s conversations. We lose our inhibitions and our awareness of our surroundings while straining to capture the nuances of the other’s speech; listing out for the subtle speech signals that convey mood and meaning, many of which are simply missing in this medium. Maybe this is why speakers are more ampliative on their cell phones, implicitly aware that less of them comes across. Face to face our attention is focused on many features of the talker. It is this multi-modal experience that can simultaneously provide so much. Without these cross-modal clues, we make a concentrated effort to tune in to what is happening elsewhere, often with dangerous consequences, as happens when drivers lose the keen awareness of their surroundings — even when using hands free sets. Could technology overcome these problems?

Here, I am reminded not of the recent past but of a huge change that occurred in the middle-ages when humans transformed their cognitive lives by learning to read silently. Originally, people could only read books by reading each page out loud. Monks would whisper, of course, but the dedicated reading by so many in an enclosed space must have been an highly distracting affair. It was St Aquinas who amazed his fellow believers by demonstrating that without pronouncing words he could retain the information he found on the page. At the time, his skill was seen as a miracle, but gradually human readers learned to read by keeping things inside and not saying the words they were reading out loud. From this simple adjustment, seemingly miraculous at the time, a great transformation of the human mind took place, and so began the age of intense private study so familiar to us now; whose universities where ideas could turn silently in large minds.

Will a similar transformation of the human mind come about in our time? Could there come a time when we intend to communicate and do so without talking out loud? If the answer is ‘yes’ a quiet public space would be restored where all could engage in their private conversations without disturbing others. Could it really happen? Recently, we have been amazed by how a chimpanzee running on a treadmill could control—for a short time—the movements of a synchronized robot running on a treadmill thousands of miles away. Here, we would need something subtly different but no less astounding: a way of controlling in thought, and committing to send, the signals in the motor cortex that would normally travel to our articulators and ultimately issue in speech sounds. A device, perhaps implanted or appended, would send the signals and another device in receivers would read them and stimulate similar movements or commands in their motor cortex, giving them the ability, through neural mimicry, to reproduce silently the speech sounds they would make if they were saying them. Could accent be retained? Maybe not, unless some way was found of coding separately, but usably, the information voice conveys about the size, age and sex of the speaker. However, knowing who was calling and knowing how they sounded may lead us to ‘hear’ their voice with the words understood.

Whether this could be done depends, in part, on whether Lieberman’s Motor Theory of Speech Perception is true, and it may well not be. However, a break-though of this kind, introducing such a little change as our not having to speak out loud or having to listen attentively to sounds when communicating, would allow us to share our thoughts efficiently and privately. Moreover, just as thinking distracts us less from our surroundings than listening attentively to sounds originating elsewhere, perhaps one could both communicate and concentrate on one’s surroundings, whether that be driving, or just negotiating our place among other people. It would not be telepathy, the reading of minds, or the invasion of thought, since it would still depend on senders and receivers with the appropriate apparatus being willing to send to, and receive from, one another. We would still have to dial and answer.

Would it come to feel as if one were exchanging thoughts directly? Perhaps. And maybe it would become the preferred way of communicating in public. And odd as this may sound to us, I suspect the experience of taking-in the thoughts of others when reading a manuscript silently was once just as strange to those early Medieval scholars. These are changes in experience that transform our minds, giving us the ability to be (notionally) in two places at once. It is these small changes in how we utilize our minds that may ultimately have the biggest effects on our lives.