As humans, nature did not give us any physical organs designed exclusively for speech. The lungs, the mouth, the larynx, and even the vocal cords themselves have primary functions unrelated to pronouncing words. However, we did it. We evolved from guttural sounds to the alphabet, thus achieving a milestone that continues to protect us as a species: communication.
Our first step in this evolution was using the air we breathe to shape our ideas, emotions and questions. The second was to capture these as symbols on stone or paper. Sharing them in real time was the third. Is it possible that we are witnessing a fourth step that will take us back?
The arrival of artificial intelligence in daily life has excited many people and worried many more. Although it’s true that each new innovation in communication tends to generate suspicion, as was the case with television in the previous century, none of the previous cases reached the heights of this new step: giving our words to a machine and granting it the credibility of communicating them better than we can.
Linguists of all ages agree that languages are living organisms. They grow along with the life of the people who use them, being modified according to their speakers’ experiences throughout history. Affections, fears, hopes, and values connect people to their way of naming things.
That’s why the words “widow” or “widower” exist to represent those who have lost their spouse, and “orphan” for those who have lost their parents, but there is no term that names a mother or father who has lost a child. Why? Because this is a kind of pain that we do not want to normalize. “Courage,” “honor,” “struggle,” “joy”—these words are heard in our national anthems to identify the pride of belonging to a certain geographical space. “Repudiation,” “shame,” and “disloyalty” are used to tag behavior that should not be repeated.
“Mamihlapinatapai” has been described as the most concise word on the planet. It belongs to the Yagan language of the natives of Tierra del Fuego; it’s the word for “a look between two people who want the same thing, but both are waiting for the other to take the first step to achieve it.” No matter how much artificial intelligence has achieved, I’ll bet you that it can’t come up with such a beautiful concept, simply because it lacks the complex and fantastic neural connections that allow humans to transmit everything through emotions. The network of circuits and sensors that give life to artificial intelligence will continue to generate copies of achievements previously created by human ingenuity. What these machines do should not be called “intelligence,” but rather: “imitation.”
The most sensible action we can take as a species is to continue betowing words upon our kids through books. That way, they can magnify their ideas by exploring worlds created by sensitive people who share their problems and experience emotions within real bodies. That’s something the frivolity of a device can never match.
This story for the April and May 2023 edition, “Let’s Read!,” was made possible by the support of La Jirafa y Yo, a publishing house that specializes in producing books for children and adolescents. The editorial is linked to the European School, in San Pablo de Heredia, where it tests its materials. We thank the team at La Jirafa y Yo for their support and for their information and comments for our reporting this month about the impact of culturally relevant reading material.