The power of words, as a cycle – literally, notionally and literally

I read Max Barry’s novel Lexicon 2-3 years ago. It was a fascinating read about an exclusive, secretive school where students are taught to harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind. Literally, they learn phrases, which, when uttered, makes people do things! They manipulate people using words, very very literally (unlike politicians who do it figuratively).

All the while during that book, I kept thinking about two other areas where the literal power of words was used – magic (spells) and Indian Vedas. Magic spells were partly about words (specific words), combined with (usually) a magic stick! Indian Vedas were also always about the power of words and sound. Specifically, the 4 stages of speech, according to Vedas were Vaikhari (physical consciousness), Madhyama (mental consciousness), Pashyanti (intellectual consciousness) and Para (transcendental consciousness). The scriptures say that misuse of speech is as threatening as misuse of body or mind. It was believed that when one speaks sincerely in Pashyanti or Para, the power in one’s words direct those words into manifestation.

Given this background, I was very interested in connecting what’s happening with the technological updates in voice-as-user-interface. We’re training Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant using our voice commands and increasingly, they are (and will be) able to understand natural language conversation do what we ask them to do. From using words to manipulate people, we seem to be moving towards words to manipulate machines.

Imagine how the UI was, for dumb machines. For instance, your modem has a WPS button and a reboot button, usually. They are usually smaller in size (since you may use them very sparingly and rarely). But that button is the signal for the machine doing specific things. What could be the equivalents for a reboot or WPS-like activity by an Alexa or Google Assistant device? Should it again be a button (a small one, hidden under the base?) or should it also be voice-controlled? I have never owned one, so I don’t know. But imagine, ‘Alexa, can you reboot yourself now?’. Now, why should this be voice-controlled and not a simpler button UI? For that, let me stretch the imagination a bit more in the future.

There is an interesting concept from the British sci-fi series Humans. In the series (outstanding series; highly recommended), synths (synthetic humans) are everywhere and work for humans as household help, drivers, staff etc. There are charging stations all over the city for synths to walk into and charge themselves whenever they want. There are also synth-free zones in cities where they cannot enter since many people want areas only for humans (given the number of synths in operation).

One nuance added in the concept is called adult mode when a human primary owner of a synth wants his/her synth to provide an ‘adult’ service. Yes, humans eventually do that too since the synths are produced to be so life-like (played by normal humans in the show!). To enable adult mode, the primary user takes out the scratch card that came with the synth when they purchased it, scratches the silver colored portion to reveal a set of words. In the show, a primary user scratches the silver colored portion in the ‘adult mode’ card and utters: “Rose. Mesmerize. Summer. Sapphire. Crush”. Just random, normal-sounding words, in a sequence changes something inside the machine (synth) and it is ready for a new level of operation! Lexicon had a similar construct that worked on humans!

Now, let me get back to that Alexa UI for a reboot. Alexa knows a lot about us, remembers our data and personal preferences. So, should the access to a reboot switch be available to anyone besides the primary owner (about whom it has a lot of data)? Ideally, no. Similarly, the synths in Humans go into adult mode only when the primary use, in his/her own voice (which has been ‘bonded’ – like a Bluetooth pairing, but more advanced – with the synth when they purchase it) utters those string of words! This is obviously to avoid misuse of a synth by non-owners!

But, broader picture – the power of words, beyond the way the communications and marketing industry uses it, is about to take an all-new spin, it looks like!

We started with Vedas and Upanishads when the words had literal power (remember – what is a ‘curse’, after all?).

Then, we used words to manipulate and manifest people into action when kings and politicians used them efficiently to have that power of masses. Not the literal power of words, but more notional.

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the marketing and communications industry put the power of words to use via mass broadcast technology – radio and TV. Again, not the power of words, literally.

Now, we have started talking to machines as if they are one among us (humans, as a species). And, in the near future, as Humans imagines it, we may go back to manipulating machines using the literal power of words, just like the Vedas!

Interesting cycle, isn’t it?



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