Sunday, August 16, 2009

A computer with a human brain and language learning

Michael Hanlon of the Daily Mail is reporting that a group a scientists might be on the verge of creating a human brain in digital form:
[A] team of scientists in Switzerland is claiming that a fully functioning replica of a human brain could be built by 2020. … They are using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain. It is this approach - essentially copying how a brain works without necessarily understanding all of its actions - that will lead to success, the team hopes.
While this raises all sorts of fun things—like confounding ethical dilemmas and the singularity—let's see what this might do for language learning.

The article almost takes us directly to language learning:
And there are other questions, too, questions at the centre of the nurture versus nature debate. Would this human mind, for example, automatically feel guilt or would it need to be 'taught' a sense of morality first? And how would it respond to religion? Indeed, are these questions that a human mind asks of its own accord, or must it be taught to ask them first?
To that, I would add, how would this brain learn language? Do you just set it off on the internets and check back in a week? It sounds like they're trying to mimic an adult brain. Would the brain then skip the key developmental stages of infants in language learning?

I'll assume that, if they actually pull off the adult brain, they'll eventually figure out how to get language into that brain. And, if they do, the Turing test should be cake:
It is a simple test in which someone is asked to communicate, using a screen and keyboard, with a computer trying to mimic a human, and another, real human. If the judge cannot tell the machine from the other person, the computer has 'passed' the test. So far, every computer we have built has failed.
If this Swiss team's brain can pass this test, you could effectively have a translator on your computer that would be no different than a real person. Assuming that they could get the tech to fit into a package a bit smaller than "one of the most powerful computers in the world", you could potentially have C-3PO (fluent in over six million forms of communication) on your iPhone.

My guess is that this would decrease the demand for language learning; why bother getting a language in your head when a truly effective digital translator could handle it all for you, most likely matching nuances better than most live translators possibly could? (Aside from C-3PO, there weren't very many polyglots in Star Wars, were there?) While there's a twinge that that'd be a shame (especially given all the time I've spent learning languages), it would also be pretty damn cool.

On the other hand, a digital brain could make a great native-speaker tutor, so I suppose the sword cuts both ways.

Links: Are we on the brink of creating a computer with a human brain? [Daily Mail]


  1. Even if scientists pull this off, there will, in my opinion, still be benefits to learning languages. In general, cognitive development: Can it be contested that learning vocabulary isn't good memory (and in some cases visual) training? Socially, learning a language also helps develop empathy - teachers toward their students as they undertake the learning process themselves; and the individual toward the cultural group as learning expressions and idioms helps gains insights into the collective paradigms through which a culture operates.
    How can an i-phone application, other than through speed, and convenience, operate as a suitable substitute? And what happens when the phone is lost? Surely learning a language takes time and a lot of energy; however, to my mind, unless a computer rivals human emotional intelligence, it won't - at least not in the near future - replace people who understand cultural and linguistic subtleties.

  2. If they truly make a human brain in digital form, there's no reason why that brain won't be able to match a human in emotional intelligence and understand both cultural and linguistic subtleties. That's exactly what makes this development so interesting; it's not just some language simulation; it's a complete, emulated brain. And these guys are saying 10 years, which I'd certainly call the near future.

    I'm sure you've heard of people saying, "Why do I need to learn a foreign language? Everyone speaks English." Well, if they can stick this human brain in an portable device, everyone in the world will be able to say, "Why do I need to learn a foreign language? My phone can translate as good as any human for me."

    However, I agree with you completely that this won't kill the benefits of learning languages. Your brain will still get the beneficial effects of learning a language, which go well beyond the memory training you mentioned. And, yes, there is always the issue of what happens when technology fails you (or you fail to bring it with you).

    Now, when you can just load up a language to my brain like Neo learned kungfu in The Matrix, that'll bring about a different calculus, but this technology's main affect would be reducing demand for language learning (although, as noted above, I think it'd have language-learning applications as well).