When some people hear I'm studying Spanish, they say, "Why bother? Pretty soon we'll have Google Glass, or Google Implant, to do the translation for us."
Is it true?
Will we listen to a Chinese speaker and hear English? Will we speak English and have it come out as Russian? Will Google Pluto language learning the way calculators did long division?
My interest goes beyond my own struggles to learn Spanish. I'm interested because, surprisingly, I find myself on a quest to learn how bilingualism might become the norm in America rather than the exception. That is, how most Americans might speak English plus another language of their choice. It seems clear that technology will play a role in accomplishing that transformation--that, or make it completely unnecessary.
Welcome to Silicon Valley's Singularity U
As it turned out, a friend put me on a path to an answer. I was catching up with Lawton Langford, a businessman, philanthropist, and learning addict, who was raving about a week he spent out in Silicon Valley studying the future. It was called Singularity University.
Singularity University, or SU, is a five-year old educational experiment dedicated to helping people harness exponentially growing technologies to solve the world's greatest challenges.
Attending SU was a commitment of time and money, but I knew it might be the best chance I would have to learn where technology was going, and perhaps I'd be able to ask my burning question about the future of language learning to some experts at Google (which is a major sponsor of SU). Besides, I was about to turn 60 and decided that going to school for a week was a wiser birthday present to myself than upgrading my old Porsche.
My week in SU boot camp
My driver from the San Francisco Airport stops at the NASA gatehouse, rolls down his window and says, "Singularity." The guard nods and the gate opens. About a mile into campus, past a gigantic exoskeleton of what I come to learn is an historic blimp hangar, we come to a stop before a one-story building where young people sit at tables awaiting this week's arrivals. Vertical banners with the Singularity University logo, which reminds me of the Superman logo, flutter in the California breeze.
Registering with me are about 70 others, ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, and mostly from outside the U.S. For some reason there's a large contingent from Holland. Other countries represented include South Africa, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Australia. Most are in business but one is from the U.S Marines and there are two young Navy Seals.
Our home for a week is the NASA Ames Research Campus, which looks like it hasn't changed since the Apollo program. My room has twin beds and two metal lockers that can be secured with padlocks, which is when I realize I'm lucky to have a room to myself. I imagine that during the Space Race, engineers and astronauts slept here. The towels remind me of what they issued in my high school gym.
But our Spartan quarters have one advantage: they are just steps away from the big classroom and the adjoining cafeteria, all of which are open day and night. The classroom is a converted dining hall with a variety of tables, some high, some low, lots of whiteboards, and a stage.
We eat our meals outside under umbrellas at picnic tables. The weather, soft as a baby blanket, fosters the close connections that begin to form among my fellow attendees and speakers who eat with us.
A fair number of us join the 7 a.m. exercise class led by a seemingly good-natured young man named James. I say "seemingly" because he invents fiendish jumping drills, "Spiderman pushups" (picture climbing up the sides of buildings, but on the ground), and torturous running drills on the basketball court, making for the longest 30 minutes I can remember. I'm grateful to be able to limp back to my room for a shower before breakfast and another 14 hours of classes.
Notes to the future (39 pages of them)
During the week, we hear inspiring and sometimes shocking addresses from luminaries in the many fields that are going exponential. We hear Brad Templeton on future computing and driverless cars and Rob Nail on robots. Salim Ismail holds forth on the topic of his new book, Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it).
Paul Saffo captivates with the practices and perils of forecasting the future, Neil Jacobstein speaks on how we are responsible for our technologies, even if we don't understand them. Peter Diamandis, the X-prize man and SU co-founder, speaks once on his book Abundance, and again on his forthcoming book Bold. He says, "We haven't seen 1% of the change that's going to happen in the next 10 years."
We hear Daniel Kraft on the future of medicine, Raymond McCauley on biotechnology ("If I want to learn something, I start a company"). Marc Goodman speaks on cyber security, the unseen deep web, and his upcoming book Future Crimes. George Skidmore talks about nanotechnology, Gregg Maryniak on energy, Stanley Mazor on how Moore's Law played out during his decades in the Valley, Ramez Naam on our planet's health, Scott Summit on 3D printing, Jeremy Howard on data science. Divya Chander, an M.D. and professor at Stanford, told us about her brain research.
I filled 39 pages with dense notes--the old fashioned way: in my (paper) notebook, with a fine-point pen.
The climax of the presentations comes Thursday evening. It is Ray Kurzweil, the co-founder of SU and author of The Singularity Is Near. Of all the people who could answer my question on the future of language learning technology, Kurzweil might be the best on the planet. And as it happened, I was about to have the chance to ask him.
The man who will live forever?
Forbes magazine has good reason to call Kurzweil the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison." Kurzweil invented the first commercial text-to-speech synthesizer and the first speech-recognition device. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, has been received by three U.S. Presidents, and holds 20 honorary doctorates. Besides directing his own companies, he is currently director of engineering at Google. Larry Page, Google's co-founder, asked Kurzweil to "bring natural language understanding to Google."
Forget about the search bar. Imagine talking to Google as you would a smart and funny friend.
When Ray Kurzweil says he expects to live forever, and expects you to do the same, it's hard to take him seriously. You want to write him off as some kind of chipped genius, something like Linus Pauling, who, despite winning two Nobel Prizes, insisted on thinking Vitamin C was a wonder drug. The problem is, everything else Ray Kurzweil says just makes so much sense.
Copies of his most recent book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, are stacked up for us to take and have him sign after his talk.
On stage for what is billed as a fireside chat, he sits perched on a stool flanked by two large monitors showing synched videos of a fireplace, blazing away. He launches into a monologue for some 45 minutes, confirming his belief that most of us should be able to live forever. "I'm certainly planning to," he says. "So wear your seat belt and avoid extreme sports."
It's easier to fathom the rest of his talk.
2029 and the coming digital neocortex
He reiterates his prediction, made some years ago, that artificial intelligence (AI) will reach parity with human intelligence in 2029. Parity will be fleeting, however, as AI soars exponentially past us bio-bound humans.
Humans have always used our tools to improve our capabilities, says Kurzweil. Artificial intelligence and the coming digital neocortex--when human intelligence escapes the biological limitation of neurons and skulls--are no different. AI won't be a technology apart from us, it will be us. It is the natural outcome of the evolution we've been engaged in for millions of years. Evolution is just going beyond natural biology and merging with, and being enhanced by, digital evolution.
Our own biological brains are already being greatly aided by the exponentially growing digital neocortex, Kurzweil says. We are outsourcing our documents, our photographs, and our memories to the cloud, and we're just beginning.
When he finishes and opens to questions, hands shoot up. Finally he acknowledges mine. The room pauses as a staff member jogs over to hand me the microphone.
I say: "Around the world there are millions of people working hard to learn a second language--I'm one of them. What advice do you have for us?"
Kurzweil begins his answer by explaining how our minds process language, how ideas are represented in a hierarchy in our neocortex. (After a few seconds, I think to hit the record button on my phone.)
"So when we invented language," he says, "I could actually take this hierarchy of symbols in my neocortex, which represented an idea, and I could transfer that to your neocortex through the medium of language."
Google Translate is pretty good now, compared with professional translators, he explains, and it's getting better fast, but it won't catch up to our own brainpower "until we achieve humans' levels, which I think is 2029."
Then: "I think we will use that technology to make ourselves better."
He explains it this way:
"Language is not just a complete redundancy, as I'm sure you appreciate. Different languages have different metaphors and different idioms, and can express things in poetic ways that you just can't do in another language. There are French expressions, Yiddish expressions that you can't communicate in the same way in English. That's a general phenomenon, so preserving languages that are about to go extinct is...a very worthwhile endeavor, it's preserving a very valuable part of our human knowledge, both to study popular languages and orphan languages."
Kurzweil then talks about his recent disagreement with Larry Page. Page had said he thought it was good that humans won't have to work much in the future. Kurzweil doesn't see it that way. The point is not to use technology to make us weaker, but stronger. "We can learn more languages. We'll become better at it as we make ourselves smarter."
I had feared that Kurzweil might say that we should forget about language learning, but he said just the opposite--that we should use technology to help us learn at ever higher levels.
Technology with a human touch still
I have a Spanish tutor named Angie who was raised in Colombia before coming to the U.S. as a teenager. She is a gifted teacher and speaks simply and slowly so I can understand. She corrects me kindly, while encouraging my progress, and gradually pushes me to use more advanced vocabulary and grammar. She is helping me evolve from rudimentary statements to something approaching adult conversation--so that I can be myself in my adopted language. Our typical 90-minute sessions fly by. I'm thrilled afterwards when I realize I've been conversing in Spanish the whole time.
But with my schedule and Angie's, we meet only once a month, not nearly enough for me to make the progress I thirst for. But could I have an AI Angie with me all the time? I think that may be what Kurzweil has in mind.
For while he is celebrated as a technologist, after hearing him speak and reading his most recent book, I think Kurzweil is a humanist. As much as he works toward reverse-engineering human intelligence, he values what humans are and is excited about what we can become.
Kurzweil prizes our abilities to use language in its highest forms--philosophy, poetry, irony, sensuousness, humor and love.
Already our technology helps us learn languages more rapidly than in the past. In our pockets we carry unabridged dual-language dictionaries, electronic flash cards that keep track of what we need to practice, language games, even live video conferencing so we can speak with native speakers on the other side of the planet. Yet what we have today--while light years ahead of what was available just a generation ago--is nothing like what we'll have shortly.
Soon we'll have AI Angies for scores of languages. These will be seemingly conscious intelligences who can understand what we're trying to say and encourage us to grow as a kind and wise tutor would. The point--and this is where we get into philosophy--is not to create substitutes for human interaction, but to prepare us to be the best humans we can be, better prepared for authentic conversations in multiple languages.
I smile when thinking how I will surprise my real Angie with how much I've learned with my AI tutor, so she can take me yet further into more meaningful, fluent conversations.
Until then, with Kurzweil's encouragement, I'm going to keep working to learn Spanish with the tools we have. And I encourage you to use technology to learn your adopted language. Do so with the confidence of knowing the technology will improve daily to make your learning not easy, which isn't the point, but satisfyingly hard and deeply meaningful.
You will learn to read and write and hear, and finally, to speak with fluency. Just as we use a hammer to drive home a nail, we will use our expanding language-learning technology to drive home true language understanding. In that way, we will open ourselves to a broader understanding of this beautiful world and more of the people in it.