Lately I’ve been reading Brian K. Vaughan’s excellent graphic novel series Ex Machina, about a New York City mayor with the superhuman ability to talk to machines. Certainly we’ve taught machines to understand our language, with various degrees of sophistication. (“If you’d like to hear more options, say ‘More Options’.”) But can we speak to machines in their own language?
When we “parrot” someone, we mimic without understanding. But real parrots often do understand. An extremely social bird, they learn to talk by mimicking the speech of their parents and flock mates, as well as other bird species. (Sure, mockingbirds do that, but mockingbirds just parrot.) A parrot, like an African Grey, can actually communicate meaning. They’re intelligent enough to be able to count, understand the concept of zero, and distinguish between colors, shapes, and materials, as well as abstracts such as “same” and “different,” “you” and “I.” They can correctly answer questions they’ve never been asked. They can invent new words to express new ideas.
In order to collect enough sounds to create their vocabularies, African Grey Parrots, like the famous Alex, have become superb mimics. They can acquire vocabularies of up to 900 words, but human speech is much harder to imitate than the bird-like squeaks, trills, beeps, clicks, and whistles of the machines that surround us. Hence, you hear stories about parrots and cockatoos sending their owners running for the phone or the microwave, just for fun, because they are bored. Videogames, alarm clocks, doorbells… all can be mimicked to get an owner’s attention. There are even apocryphal stories of African Greys who could mimic the supersonic click of an old-fashioned t.v. remote… and change the channel with their voice.
Okay, I said apocryphal. It’s never been proven. Do I believe it’s ever happened? No. Do I want to? Hell yes. Do I think it’s conceivable? Absolutely. While almost all remote controls, including Tesla’s original, have used either radio signals or infrared light, there was one model built in 1956 by Zenith which functioned on supersonic frequencies. It was discontinued when it was discovered that the high-frequency pitch was audible to dogs and certain people, and that some household sounds could trigger the piezoelectric crystal that was the remote’s sensor, including, for some reason, xylophones. If a xylophone can change the channel, and a parrot can mimic a xylophone…
But so what? It’s not like the parrot understands the television any better because it understands one or two functional commands in televisionese. And the parrot that learns to speak to a machine isn’t what interests me.
What interests me is how we’ve trained our machines to talk like parrots, and understand them. A microwave’s droning beep means “get up and get hot food.” A doorbell means “get up and open the door.” We could make our machines speak nothing but English; the technology exists. But that would be repugnant. So we’ve surrounded ourselves with an artificial flock of birds. The crosswalk, the elevator, the toaster… we’ve built our machines to speak in simple chirps and whistles, a bird/machine creole language. And a parrot, with its reasoning brain and clever tongue, can both understand and speak the reductive machine language based loosely on its own, and we will understand and follow orders. We will get up to get hot food, which pleases the parrot or cockatoo, which is the bird equivalent of an ADD 5-year old problem child.
In other words, what amazes me isn’t that a bird can control our machines with its voice. It’s that a bird can control us with its voice, by speaking like a machine.