Last month, the latest project of the entrepreneurial futurist Elon Musk, “Neuralink”, gained international attention, with extremely brief newspaper articles which suggested that his technology could “render human language obsolete” in as short a time as five years.
The articles were long on shock value and short on verifiable detail, and stated merely that Musk aimed to implant a battery-powered chip into a human brain. Although Musk’s primary aim is to cure problems such as eyesight and brain injuries, he has posited that later developments may have greater capabilities, such as replacing speech. As he has stated, rather ominously, “You won’t need to talk. We could still do it for sentimental reasons”.
As a translator who considers language, literature and culture to be the very stuff of life, that’s a worrying prospect. Neuralink certainly poses serious dangers in terms of security issues, as well as the invasive nature of brain implants. Yet aside from this, there is the prospect of never again hearing the melodic sounds of Italian, not to mention the incredibly varied dialects, such as Neapolitan, which is considered to be almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard Italian. It is those double consonants in Italian which are responsible for adding that incredible musicality to the language. As Pietro Bembo, the Italian cardinal responsible for influencing the codification of the Italian literary language in the wake of the country’s unification said, “che perciò che due parti sono quelle che fanno bella ogni scrittura, la gravità e la piacevolezza; e le cose poi, che empiono e compiono queste due parti, son tre, il suono, il numero, la variazione” (that there are therefore, two parts to the language that cause every composition to be so beautiful, – gravity and pleasantness; and there are three things that then flesh out and make concrete these two parts: the sound, the number and the variation).
The complexity of Musk’s mission is daunting, given the labyrinthine nature of the human brain, and his aim to treat incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s is laudable.
Nevertheless, the prospect that the implantation of an electrical chip could enable humans to – almost telepathically – send thoughts between their brains, is legitimately terrifying. Aside from the importance of spoken language as a communication tool, in conjunction with body language and physical movement, to allow people to express themselves and their emotions, to share knowledge, and, essentially, to build communities, there is a very real possibility that permitting the implantation of a chip in a human brain would ultimately erase that human’s personal identity.
Every word, every phrase; indeed, especially in Italy, every accompanying hand gesture, is replete with significance. The thought that such beauty could be eliminated by technology is tragic. But then, as Musk himself has said, we could still talk – if only for sentimental reasons….