Communication augments the individual, it creates communities, it is vital for survival of the majority of species. It shaped and was shaped by the course of evolution. it is impossible to imagine a day in our life without communicating with our family, friends and colleagues.
Is there any pattern in the course of communication paradigms?
What will the next major paradigm shift in communication be like?
Is there any fundamental limit to the rate of information exchange between humans?
The above questions are all intertwined. The evolution of communication is was shaped and limited by inherent physical characteristics of the species. A clear pattern in the communication evolution will allow us to speculate on the next paradigm shift. The evolution of communication between living organisms is tightly tied with the evolution of sensing, processing and emitting organs. Nature has always found many fascinating ways for animals to communicate.
The history of communication goes back 4 billion years ago, to the age of bacteria. Single cell organisms exchange information through chemical signals. Bacteria talk to each other, distinguish between species, and have both common inter-species as well as intra-species language. Some species of bacteria have hundreds of different behaviors, affected by cell community voting mechanism. Cells within our body communicate through variety of chemical, thermal and electrical signals. Chemical communication works for small distances. It is impossible to distinguish the exact source of the information, and the information exchange rate is limited.
Around 600 million years ago, during a burst of rapid evolution, dubbed the “Cambrian explosion”, primitive nerve system and vision started to evolve. A new medium emerged, and shortly it became utilized for communication. Sea creatures developed complex light emitting capabilities, based on symbiotic relations with luminescent bacteria or complex bio-luminescence organs, lenses and color filters. This was a significant paradigm shift, which introduced new dimensions into the language: Fine granularity of the light spectrum, ability to create moving colorful 3 dimensional light shapes. It is an interesting fact that this luminescence capabilities are the dominated by primitive deep-sea creatures. We can only imagine what could be done by covering our skin with LCDs and wiring every pixel to our intellectually and socially evolved brains.
Mammals and birds communicate mostly through sound, due to its ubiquitous nature. No line of sight is required. As far as you are close enough to the origin, you’ll get the message. Due to sexual nature of all mammals and birds, rituals have evolved, whether it’s to impress the female, or to beat another rival male. Primates have developed more complex language structure which involves hoots and gestures.
Humans, during their short period of existence, have reinvented the communication more times and in more ways than ever seen in nature before. This time it wasn’t due to an introduction of a new sense, but rather a very complex processing organ. We have learned and evolved to think metaphorically. Combined with our ability to produce consonants in addition to vowels, we found a completely new way to communicate. Sequences of vowels and consonants were assigned to abstract concepts, feelings, metaphors and everyday objects. From the dawn of humanity, we’ve been a very social creature, for a good evolutionary reason. We always had to collaborate in order to survive, and collaboration is simply impossible without an effective way of communication. Information wasn’t really liberated at this point.
Then, around 30,000 years ago, there came the first human who painted a picture on a cave wall. He projected a metaphor to the visual medium. And change history again. Writing was born. For the first time, one could say something which could be heard over and over again, in different times. Information could finally be saved, perpetuated, persisted. The bandwidth increased dramatically because the producer of the information did not have to repeat the same information over and over again. The wall literally augmented, enhanced and empowered him.
The wall was stationary, and thus required the participants to physically stand against it. This all changed when humans started to write on non-stationary objects, such as clay tablets (3500 BC, Sumer), bones (1400 BC, china), stone tokens, papyrus (2200 BC) and paper. New concepts and metaphors were created all the time. It just wasn’t practical to create corresponding symbols to all new concepts, and spreading their meaning to the people. Pictographs appeared around 3500 BC. The oldest one discovered to date is from Sumar.
Then came the alphabet. it literally liberated language. The alphabet is basically a projection from the auditory to the visual space. Literate people could finally say what they could read, and write what they could say, without the need for constant learning of new symbols.
Once you have an alphabet, it’s much easier to automate the process of writing. A prototype is created, and cloned over and over again. Printing was so inevitable that it was independently invented in China around 200AD (woodblock printing), in the Holy Roman Empire by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, and more times throughout the history. Writing got faster. This is a step forward in the distribution of information, rather than a paradigm shift.
The ability to transmit information without physically moving the matter is extremely powerful. Hundreds of different telegraphs appeared in the last few millennia. The Greek telegraph, used around 500BC, included the use of trumpets, drums, shouting, beacon fires, smoke signals, mirrors and semaphores. When we gained the ability to generate and conduct electric current through wires, it was only a matter of time until ideas start to travel on those wires. Now they were even easier, faster and cheaper ways to spread information.
The next information liberation step is not related to the transfer speed, but rather to the associative nature of our minds. Hypertext was born. The nonlinear reading was used hundreds of years before the invention of hypertext. Dictionaries and encyclopedias included references and interlinking. Books had tables of contents. However, for the first time, the nonlinear reading became practical, simply because hyperlinks illuminated manual paging and lookup.
We’re in the dawn of the next revolution. The Semantic Web revolution, which takes nonlinear reading even further. It makes the interlinking dynamic and automatic. Personalized nonlinear reading flows can be created for the reader, based on his intent, implicit goals, reading history, past knowledge, reading style, time constraints and interests.
Primarily at the same time, another revolution is taking place. Computers learn to understand voice. We talk much more than we type. We can talk when we drive, walk or eat. However, most of verbal information doesn’t leverage the above described technological advances, simply because it is not digitized. There are two major limiting factors: computers are not yet ubiquitous, and speech recognition quality is still relatively low. When those limiting factors disappear, Exabytes of verbal information will be processed, stored, transmitted, shared, indexed, searched, interlinked and consumed.
It’s 2010. We’ve come a long way in developing our communication capabilities. Information is being transmitted at the speed of light, broadcast to billions of people everywhere in the globe, as fast as it is created. It can be instantly found, edited and shared.
Are we done here?
The speculation part starts here. What is the next paradigm shift? No one knows, but we have billions of years of history to try to spot the trends. We’ve created a ridiculous situation where the rate of the information transmission is limited by how fast we move our tongue, and the rate that we can parse and understand human speech. It was found that the average reading, listening, typing and braille reading rate rarely exceeds 400 words per minute. There might be simple reasons for those limitations. We simply never needed to pass information at a rate faster than our lips move, and our hearing and brain never had the need to understand speech at fast rates. These days we’re literally flooded by information, the news industry explodes as users start to share and contribute events and the increasingly connected nature of information creates an infinite stream of juicy information to consume.
EEG based mind-reading headsets are becoming affordable these days. A decent Emotiv EPOC headset can be purchased for $300. That’s just the first generation of the technology, but it gives a clue on the exciting possibilities that are going to be created, once it gets more mature.
What if we could leverage the high-bandwidth optic nerve, to create a direct broadband connection to the brain, bypassing the language 400 words/minute bottleneck? We will need to create an engineered language which could be naturally transmitted through the optic nerve and processed by the visual cortex. We will have to train our brains to understand that language. Probably, some sorts of ideas will be more naturally transmitted this way than others. Some of them would have to be transformed on many levels (e.g semantic abstractions/metaphors, visual transformations, aggregations/summarizations). An efficient communication framework should have a common vocabulary and ontology, an extensible concepts framework, be multi-layered, and impose low information redundancy.
The optic nerve is responsible for transmitting visual information from the eye to the brain. It contains around 1.2 million nerve fibers (compared to 30k of the auditory nerve), capable of transmitting 8.7 megabits per second. The ultra-high bandwidth channel might hold the key to the next paradigm shift in communication. During a typical one hour professional meeting, about 2 thousand words will be exchanged between the participants. This is less than 10 kilobytes of information. Theoretically, direct mental communication via the optic nerves can enable us to complete such a meeting faster than we pronounce a single word verbally. One of
The first adopters are likely to be the military, police, hospitals and other emergency services, where the ability to shorten discussions to fractions of a second could be the difference between life and death. Businesses will highly benefit from the productivity boost. Academy people and students, who deal with information and knowledge transfer most of the time, will adopt the new medium to speed up their learning and research process. It is interesting to ask whether and when we will adopt telepathy to personal talks among friends and family. This paradigm shift will drive further profound changes, which will make us question the purpose of daily concepts such as: business trips, meeting rooms, podcasts, lectures, keyboards, text.
There are still many unanswered questions, regarding the feasibility and implications of such technology.
Will an adoption of telepathy boost the human evolution, and the technological development?
What are the ethical implications?
Are our brains capable of processing such quantities of information? How will it affect our psychology?
Will it require us to rebuild the existing Internet infrastructure?
Will a new language be required for telepathy?