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Learning, and Learning From, C+cean

Posted under Miscellanea at .

You might think — given a world in which there are uncountable computer languages — that computers had evolved in the familiar way, from primitive valvifera to increasingly inquisitive and playful large-brained transistaria, maybe living off a foraging/scavenging diet supplemented with occasional catches of wild mice and trackballs, through a process of increased capacity for group relationships and pack hunting among the tape herds, developing the ability to communicate complex plans to each other, finally becoming able to consciously invent new words and grammars, write poetry, and construct spamming schemes.

But they didn’t. (Yet.) That’s not what computer languages are, it’s a trick of the randomly imprecise natural language we’re using; they are computer control languages (CCLs). That’s a whole different thing. They are actually human languages, but formal extensions of our usual grammars, used to control computers.

There’s a kind of implication here . . . more interesting random imprecision . . . could it be that normal human languages are actually human-control languages (HCLs)? Sometimes? Maybe. It’s probably more accurate to think that human languages are general languages usable for a range of functions. One of these might be controlling humans, but we tend now to attempt to control each other through legal mechanisms which are themselves — ideally — controlled with semi-formal legal language. Or just with money and/or weapons. Adverts are another example of an attempt to control human behaviour with unnatural (often counterfactual) language. Meantime we have also developed CCLs because, so far, we have to use more formal languages to control dumb machines, though the day may come when we can make smart machines that really are fully programmable with natural languages. (I await a formal proof of this with interest but little hope.)

In the interim there is probably an informative relationship between our CCLs and human general languages which could be determined by a sort of subtraction of the inherent aspects of a CCL — those features which are essential to the constraints of an inflexible processor. Perhaps the remainder would be a sort of language as it would have been if we never had to control anything.

Now, I don’t really know, and I’m not quite up with the research, whether some cetaceans have abilities or behaviours which can realistically be called languages, in a sense which would be meaningful to or measurable by us. But here’s the thing. Supposing a group of dolphins were to design a computer. Unless they knew something we don’t, they would also need to develop a language which made sense to them, as a formal subset or extension of concepts that they already understand. What would a Dolphin CCL (DCCL) be called? C+cean? Hasqwhale?

languages set diagram

What I think is interesting here is that C+cean would have many characteristics in common with some Human CCLs (HCCL), not because of any common origin, but because of common function. (Convergent evolution if you like.) Charting the differences between a reasonably high-level HCCL and DCCL then might give us some real insight into actual Dolphin and Human language differences.

Exactly how practical this is, I’m not sure. Humans have started using computers because we have a purpose for them — information processing. Dolphins haven’t even invented writing yet. Although if they needed it, they might have done. Or putting that differently, if dolphins found some advantage in physical symbols, they might use them. Hypothetical dolphin languages may be artefacts of dolphin brains; they are social, they have some tool-using capability; but do they therefore have any need to write? We didn’t until we filled our lives with too many possessions to keep track of any other way. (Is symbolic thought an outcome of hands rather than brains?)

Except that, once having invented writing, we keep finding new uses for it. And we keep finding new ways of doing it, and doing other things with the mechanisms evolved for text, notably the internet. It doesn’t really matter who first thought of it; dolphins may be as likely as us to find a use for global communications, once they see it in operation. And of course computer games. They may not want to buy much from Amazon, but they might be quite interested in the possibility of squeaking and singing across the wires, or listening to other patches of ocean. Or we could even just see if they can absorb the idea of controlling a turtle. Or they might come up with some novel ideas I can’t guess at. If they have novel ideas, developing them with a programming language that makes sense to them might be in reach. And thereby we might be able to learn a great deal about their language abilities, and thoughts. The genie already being in the boxen, they don’t actually have to invent computers to start using them, any more than young humans, who are able to learn some programming.

(Coincidentally, I’m listening to some mediæval masses as I finish this. Another approach to the same question might simply be music. I wonder if anyone has ever played (or sung live) polyphonic choral music to dolphins . . . And would they interpret our chants as background noise, or music, or some weird primitive attempt at communication that defies comprehension?)

Final note: There are a sight too many good names for oceanic data processing languages for comfort, at least from an English-medium background.

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