A fascinating mystery

Orange Thrush (Turdus rufiventris), which have the ability to imitate the vocalizations of other birds
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By JOSÉ MACHADO MOITA NETO*

Natural language-based communication and simulation promise to not only facilitate human interaction but also create new ways of experiencing and understanding the world

The understanding of language, as a primordial form of communication between living beings, has experienced exponential and astonishing growth over time. However, even with all the scientific and technological advances, language still remains a fascinating and complex mystery, with many aspects yet to be fully elucidated. An interesting example of this complexity can be observed in the behavior of some birds, such as the true parrot (Aestive Amazon) and the orange thrush (Turdus rufiventris), which have the ability to imitate the vocalizations of other birds. This imitation, however, is not a mere exercise in repetition, but rather a behavior that has specific reasons and functions, which are still poorly understood.

Imitation, in any type of context, has always been the subject of controversy and debate among scholars. In some cases, imitation can be seen as a form of learning and socialization, while in other cases, it can be interpreted as a manifestation of aggression or dominance. An example of this is systematic intimidation (bullying), characterized by the reproduction of the other's speech, ipsis litteris or caricaturing modes of expression, also known as imitation. This type of imitation can cause serious psychological damage to the victim, affecting their self-esteem, self-confidence and emotional well-being.

Since ancient times, Greek philosophers have been concerned with understanding the nature of imitation and its ethical and aesthetic implications. Plato, for example, had a negative view of “mimesis”, which he considered an imperfect copy of reality, while Aristotle saw imitation as a form of learning and knowledge, capable of awakening emotions and sensations in the viewer. These views, although different, have in common the concern with the relationship between imitation and reality, and the importance of imitation as a form of artistic and cultural expression.

Understanding human language is a complex phenomenon that develops from interpersonal relationships and the way individuals experience and perceive the world around them. Such understanding is not restricted to the mere decoding of linguistic symbols, but also involves capturing subtle nuances that reflect the way of feeling and experiencing the world with oneself and with others. In this way, language becomes a fundamental instrument for expressing common thoughts about the world, in an educational process that extends throughout life.

It is important to emphasize that language is not limited to the mere communication of ideas, but also serves as a means of constructing and negotiating the meaning of things. Language is optimized for communication in which the context is common to those who communicate, that is, it adapts to the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which it operates. From this perspective, language is a dynamic and flexible system that allows individuals to communicate effectively and creatively, even when words are not enough to express what they want to convey.

In this sense, the popular expression “for the good understander, half a word is enough” takes on a new meaning when it comes to human language. The context that involves communication completes the meaning of the sound that is emitted, that is, the words are not isolated, but are inserted in a larger context that gives them meaning. Thus, understanding language depends not only on decoding words, but also on interpreting the context in which they are inserted.

Language, as a complex and multidimensional phenomenon, constitutes an integrated whole, a comprehensive expression of the world we inhabit and a collective construction elaborated over time. This perspective is corroborated by the popular saying “One swallow doesn't make a summer”, which emphasizes the importance of collective behaviors in the creation and maintenance of linguistic systems. In this sense, it is possible to affirm that changes in context, whether social, cultural or technological, have the potential to modify not only human behaviors, but also the structures and dynamics of language themselves.

A paradigmatic example of this transformation is the invention of writing, which brought a revolutionary change in human language. By trying to simulate the presence of the interlocutor through written words, writing created a physical and temporal distance between the interlocutors, enabling the transmission of messages beyond the spatial-temporal limits imposed by orality. This distancing, in turn, had profound implications for social organization, both in terms of interpersonal relationships and structures of power and knowledge.

Firstly, writing caused a shift away from oral tradition as the main means of transmitting knowledge and cultural values. With the fixation of words on material supports, the importance of individual and collective memory was gradually supplanted by the authority of the written text. In this new scenario, the guarantees of agreements and commitments began to be established through documents and contracts, becoming more sophisticated and bureaucratic.

Secondly, writing substantially changed the learning and teaching processes. If previously learning the trade took place mainly through direct contact with the master, with the dissemination of writing, apprentices began to have access to knowledge through reading books and manuals. This transformation gave rise to a new social category: that of literates, specialists in coding and decoding written texts, who were dedicated to the study and production of knowledge in different areas of knowledge.

The advent of the first telephones brought with it an unprecedented and peculiar experience for human communication, by allowing people to engage in conversations with individuals absent from their immediate field of vision. This new form of interaction challenged established norms of interpersonal communication, as conversation participants were no longer physically present to each other. Initially, users maintained the gestures and facial expressions characteristic of a face-to-face conversation, revealing the persistence of habits rooted in our social nature. However, the telephone, as a mediated communication device, introduced a fragmentation and simulation of direct conversation between interlocutors, ushering in a new era in the dynamics of human interaction.

As technology evolved, video chatting emerged as a natural extension of the telephone, seeking to bring the experience of mediated communication even closer to that of face-to-face communication. Through real-time audio and video transmission, people now have the opportunity to see and hear each other, even when they are geographically distant. This innovation represented a significant advance in the search for richer and more engaging communication, contributing to the reduction of barriers imposed by physical distance. However, it is important to consider that each form of interaction brings with it gains and losses, and video chatting is no exception.

On the one hand, video chat allows for more complete communication, in which interlocutors can access visual and auditory information that helps understand the content and evaluate the emotional context of the conversation. Furthermore, the possibility of seeing and being seen can contribute to building a feeling of closeness and connection between people, even if they are separated by long distances.

On the other hand, video chat also imposes limitations on communication, since certain aspects of face-to-face interaction cannot be fully replicated in this format. For example, sharing sensory experiences, such as the smell and taste of a meal, remain outside the scope of video chatting, which can affect the quality and meaning of the interaction.

The current era brings with it a new form of communication and simulation, an advancement that promises to be as revolutionary as previous ones, if not more so, due to its comprehensive nature that integrates writing, audio and video in a personal and bidirectional relationship. This new modality of communication seeks to imitate human language, known as “natural language”, as closely as possible. The history of technologies, including those considered most disruptive, provides a valuable context for understanding that new languages ​​will be developed, and that these changes will inevitably alter contexts, behaviors and the world in general.

The evolution of communication technologies has been a continuous and transformative process, from the invention of writing to the current digital era. Each new advance has brought with it not only new forms of expression, but also profound changes in social, economic and cultural structures. Writing allowed the preservation and dissemination of knowledge beyond the barriers of time and space. The press facilitated the dissemination of information on a large scale, contributing to the formation of more informed and democratic societies. Television and radio brought mass communication and popular culture into people's homes.

Now, we are facing another great technological leap. Natural language-based communication and simulation promise to not only facilitate human interaction, but also create new ways of experiencing and understanding the world. This technology allows people to interact with digital systems in a more intuitive and natural way, bringing human-machine interaction closer to human interaction. This new form of communication has the potential to transform several sectors, from education and healthcare to entertainment and commerce.

However, it is important to highlight that the introduction of new communication technologies also generates ethical challenges and implications. They can alter power dynamics, amplify inequalities, and create new risks to privacy and security. Therefore, it is essential that the adoption of these technologies is accompanied by critical reflection and effective regulatory strategies.

The pragmatic perspective on changes, elucidated by the famous phrase “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything must change”, attributed to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his work the leopard, points, unfortunately, to the permanence of the status quo in relation to the distribution of global power. This view is supported by the observation of the significant amount of investments made by large corporations in the artificial intelligence (AI) sector. This trend suggests that these entities will continue to occupy a hegemonic position on the global economic scene, thanks to the management and manipulation of our behaviors through these technologies.

Furthermore, it is important to highlight that we are already at a point of no return when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence. This statement is based on the deep integration of these technologies in different sectors of society, such as health, education, transport and entertainment, among others. This omnipresence of artificial intelligence makes a return to a state prior to its implementation unthinkable, which presents us with a complex challenge: how to deal with the ethical, social and economic implications of this reality?

In this context, the figure of the Sphinx, present in several mythologies, emerges as a symbol of the current situation. The creature can be seen as a representation of the demands and challenges imposed by the age of artificial intelligence. The phrase “Decipher me or I will devour you!” can be interpreted as a call to action, a demand for answers and solutions to the problems generated by the adoption of these technologies.

Therefore, it is essential that society, together with corporations and governments, strive to decipher the enigmas of artificial intelligence, seeking to understand its implications and develop strategies to mitigate risks and maximize benefits. Otherwise, we run the risk of being “devoured” by the negative consequences of this technological revolution, such as the expansion of social and economic inequalities, the loss of privacy and the manipulation of our behaviors.

The pragmatic vision about changes, the reality of corporate dominance on the global economic scene through artificial intelligence and the challenge represented by the Sphinx require deep reflection and concerted action. It is necessary to establish standards and regulations that guarantee the ethical and responsible use of these technologies, in addition to investing in education and research so that society is prepared to face the challenges of the artificial intelligence era. By doing so, we can truly look toward a future where the changes brought about by artificial intelligence can benefit everyone, not just a handful of individuals and corporations.

*José Machado Moita Neto is a retired professor at UFPI and researcher at UFDPar.


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