Sunday, March 7, 2010

Assimilation Has Begun

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Star Trek. When Star Trek: The Next Generation came out I was really hooked. Whereas the former was full of leadership anecdotes, and the exploits of one each, Captain James T. Kirk, the latter explored more explicit ramifications of life in space, technology, and our future trek through the galaxy albeit with the full effect of a perfect earth like gravitational pull. Perhaps the greatest contribution of TNG to SciFi and forward thinking futurists who have trouble seeing beyond the coming technology singularity is the concept of the Borg. The Borg didn’t firmly take hold of the Trekie culture until the release of the 8th motion picture of the Star Trek franchise and the first with the cast of TNG. The movie was “Star Trek: First Contact”. Who doesn’t remember the grim face of the new hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as the Borg began their assimilation of his ship and crew? Finally he agrees to sacrifice the Enterprise in order to destroy them.

Maybe there is an advanced cyber-borg based civilization somewhere out beyond the reaches of the galaxy waiting for the day when we begin colonization of the planets, only to have them sweep down and assimilate us into their collective…or maybe they are already here.

I signed up with Google Voice about six months ago. I really have been jazzed by the technology which allows me to check my voice messages on my cell phone from my computer at work. Cell phones are not permitted in my office so I either have to take time to walk out to my car to check my messages, or I have to dial voice mail every few hours from my office phone. Neither option is very convenient. What is nifty and fast is getting an email with a transcribed text of the voice message someone has left on my cell phone directly into my inbox. Google Voice enables this to happen. Since I’ve toyed with the idea of buying voice recognition software so I could dictate messages and turn them into memos for the past couple of years, gaining access to the power of Google and the software they are using the drive the translation, for free, is staggering. So I signed up and as of today, I’ve called to check my voice mail messages approximately two times in the last six months. That bought back a significant part of my life and I no longer worry about missing an important message on my cell phone. Now this is not to say that the quality of the translation is all that good, in fact it’s not that good at all. But it’s sufficient to understand the nature of the message and to gauge its level of importance. My next call will be to take action on the message, not to call to check my voice mail.

As the last few months rolled by I seem to be doing an impromptu test of the quality of the voice to text translations. It’s a very interesting to see some of the messages that result. Some weird words can be created, and sometimes those words could be embarrassing to the individual who left them. I have noticed which of my friends tend to speak very clearly with not much of an accent. My friend from Arizona for instance gets translated with great accuracy. My neighbor from Brooklyn New York, however, is barely legible. One interesting result is that digits seem to be at or near 100%. Or I haven’t detected an error so far, even with my neighbor’s accent. And that I find very interesting.

Now I will tell you about the most interesting test of all. Yesterday my cable went out. I called the cable company to report the outage. Through an automated menu of options I was directed to further options and then advised that at my location they already knew about the outage and they were working to correct the problem. Then I was given the option for a call-back when they believed the problem was resolved. I missed the call-back when it came in so naturally Google Voice picked up and recorded the message from the cable company. I didn’t think about it at the time but the call-back itself was a computer generated message. A machine was generating a voice which was being recorded by another machine and then translated into a text message which was sent to my email. The machine voice nailed it. The scary translation accuracy of the computer generated voice was 97.25%.

Apparently I can now officially communicate with an artificial language more accurately then I can a real human voice. It's not scary in the sense that computers can talk better than us -- it's scary because the digital signal that represents the word "satisfaction" has been copied and pasted. Meaning the word “satisfaction” now has a digital signal. It’s sealed in stone. It’s permanent. The digital signature should, in theory, never change. Language as we know it, along with its unique role in human development will soon begin to stagnate. It will not change, and we humans will move toward the standard. Language will cease to evolve. As language technology propagates and becomes ubiquitous, it is not the computers that will begin talking like us; it is us that will begin talking like computers.

For instance, unwitting of what I was doing, I've already instructed some friends to speak more clearly when leaving a voice mail -- those from accent free zones already have voices that are translated accurately and need not change yet. And I do it too and have done so for some time. When face to face with a telephone menu with voice recognition, I try to speak more clearly, because I’ve already learned the frustration that will result if the call fails, so I move towards them. We are being assimilated. It works like this. First we will lose our accents, then we will speak in crystal clear monotone, then we will have chips imbedded in our head...isn’t that the Borg. The very idea that artificial intelligence is about making artificial things more like us is dead wrong. We will be getting closer to them. We have the biological ability to evolve, not them. They will not become human they will strip humanity from us. They will not turn into us and one day gain a soul. We will turn into them and one day be forced to lose ours. It seems that the Borg is already here and assimilation has already begun. Are you excited or scared?