Bill Green

Extracting meaning

Speech is slowly becoming an obsolete emergency-only communication protocol

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Observing the real world you can notice this trend:

  • People in social situations (parties, conferences, dates…) texting on their smartphone instead of speaking to other people.

  • People in companies preferring to communicate via a collaborative textual chat, rather than speaking, sometimes with people a few feet away.

  • Young people who have no idea how to express themselves with words, people interviewed by television stumbling constantly for words, etc. ; when in the good old times, it seems people were generally more articulate and confident speakers.

People don’t like to speak anymore? We can try to understand the reasons why.

  • Speaking is not as necessary as it used to be. Alternative ways are simpler, usually require no formal greetings or keeping your attention focused, and are asynchronous (fire a text and forget about it until your friend reads it), while speaking requires synchronization of participants. Asynchronous is the future, the programmers say!

  • Speaking is vulnerable to ambient sounds. Our bustling modern world has constant background noise. Talking in public transportation can become tiring or tedious, while texting is still fine.

  • The information in everything you say is immediately lost if it’s not recorded or remembered. This is incredibly wasteful compared to text protocols.

  • People spend more time communicating on social media, because it catches their interest by design, and they feel that maintaining a relationship with friends is more important than striking up random conversations with strangers, which are always hit-or-miss.

  • Speech is always unfiltered. And you don’t decide who gets to talk to you or not. For example panhandlers can choose to harass you with their voice, but they can’t reach you on your smartphone. Arguably, writing notes or texts to you would be somewhat less impactful anyway.

  • You need to start the speaking procedure by something like “Hey” and close it by something like “OK, see ya”. If your start directly talking about what you want to say, or just walk away when you’re finished talking, you’re a psycho.

  • Speech is not as easily processed by computers in meaningful ways. Speech recognition is still awkward to use.

  • You might have to repeat yourself a lot to make sure all people hear/understand you well, especially on the phone.

  • Feeling ignored while talking is the worst feeling. Feeling ignored while texting is a more subdued form of rejection.

In conclusion, it’s possible to argue that trying not to speak too much is an optimization, a way towards a better attention/information ratio.

Why do we even speak?

OK, let’s not kid ourselves, the power of speech is important. Historically it was our best communication protocol for millions of years, a major turning point that confirmed the slow separation from our monkey cousins.

But really look at it from an exterior perspective: it’s a flawed and archaic protocol in the modern world.

The only advantages of speech compared to other communication protocols are:

  • The ability to broadcast a message to multiple geographically close persons easily.

  • Sensing involuntary body language and how feelings influence voices. This use of speech is especially irreplaceable in situations where you want to evaluate whether a person is trying to oversell him/herself, during dates, job interviews, business meetings, etc. You would never consider doing any of these activities through just a mail exchange.

  • Making sure you have the complete attention of someone. A good “Hey!” will always have priority over whatever the person is involved in.

  • Shouting to warn someone of an impending danger.

Objectively in an “augmented human” society where everyone has access to a communicating device, you could replace every use case of speech by text protocols, except maybe in case of emergency.

Well even then, I suppose you could implement differentiated ringtones or sound alerts depending on the content or special hashtags of the texts you receive on your smartphone.

But sound is not the most urgent or highest priority protocol available to mankind. When someone punches you in the face or kisses you on the mouth, their intent is obvious and immediately brought to your attention.

Smartphones being capable only of text and sound (as of today), it’s fun to imagine how the world would be changed if they could act physically on you, via a bluetooth extension in your brain to control you, for example.

Why be content with your smartphone triggering a sound alarm as it detects a bus with broken brakes coming right at you, when your smartphone could trigger your body to get out of the way, without wasting time to think, and with an unbeatable reaction time?

Shy in public? Not confident with your body language in the presence of women? Preload your smartphone with a selection of prerecorded body language from the most confident public speakers in the world, specifically tuned to the tastes of your target audience, and let your bluetooth brain extension direct your every move!

So yeah, the world is changing.

If the current evolution of technology is prolonged to its logical conclusion, it’s safe to assume everything you know about humanity might be unrecognizable in a hundred years.

I suspect speaking might become truly unnecessary once humans are all equipped with wireless binary data transceivers wired to a hybrid processor/brain.

What about speech commands, Xbox One, PS4, Kinect, PS Eye?

Don’t they prove that speech, and body language, and all archaic forms of communication, are the future?

A modern trend to focus on speech and body language, the two most primitive communication protocols available to mankind? How could that be?

And what about virtual reality and the buzz around Oculus Rift? It seems using the “natural” protocols of humanity and have the computer adapt to you, instead of asking unnatural things like pressing buttons, or entering text commands, is the future of gaming, or what?

I’m not the only one to think it’s not progress, although most people would have a difficult time articulating why.

Simply these technologies cater to people’s monkey brains, trying to increase sales by having the simplest requirements possible, the lowest common denominator, using communication protocols that everyone, even your mother, even your grandmother, use everyday.

And guess what, it works. People who would never play video games can understand that making the gesture of punching someone will hurt enemies, running will make you run, etc.

No need to press buttons anymore (a physical way of sending binary data!) to make the console do things, you talk and order it, like you would in a normal social situation.

Is it the future of gaming? At least it’s a way to attract more people to video games, younger kids, seniors, families, etc.

But the “energy spent”/”fun” ratio is really bad, and the more obsessive “optimizing” gamers will obviously find no interest in that, and are not the target audience anyway.

OK, so, no speech… then what’s in the future?

The most refined way you can interact with a gaming console is not speech or moving your arms around: it’s basically a computer, so the best way for it to understand what you want is… just programming it.

Pressing buttons means forcing the game program to follow different parts in the code based on your stream of binary input. What if you had more freedom than that, and could actually script your interactions with the games, essentially having your own code as a part of the game?

I would not be surprised if the future of gaming was just that: games where you interact with a world by programming parts of it.

Of course programming is hard for our monkey brains, we’re slow at it and make a lot of mistakes, it’s not always fun, which seems to defeat the purpose of a game. But we might evolve to a point where computers are so ubiquitous that programming skills are a required part of being a normal human being, just like basic math or speaking a natural language is required for every normal human being now.