Could Google’s PaLM translator delete nationalism?
At its annual developer conference in early May 2022, Alphabet announced what is destined to become a turning point in human history. In his keynote opening speech at the Google I/O 2022 conference, the CEO of Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, almost casually noted that Google’s Pathways Language Model, known as PaLM, can understand a new language using a monolingual approach without needing to compare its text with another language.
This amazing development and PaLM’s ability to understand and explain the most obtuse jokes signals a radical change not just in human-to-machine communications, which is what Pichai focused on, but more importantly in human-to-human communications. For the first time in history, Google’s PaLM will soon allow people across the globe to use a mobile phone app to converse fluently in real time with other people who do not speak their language and understand them completely.
We can imagine an English-speaking American visiting a farmers’ market in China or India and haggling over prices or joking about the weather as if he were a native Chinese or Hindi speaker from the same province. This complete tearing down of language barriers between ordinary people everywhere is an unprecedented development that goes far beyond any technological innovation in human communications in history, be it written language, printing, radio or even the internet.
Nothing like this has happened before and its potential impact on identity politics, human migrations, cultural interaction and, most importantly, knowledge exchange will be unimaginable. Suddenly, everything we consider today to be a barrier to mutual understanding between peoples will fall away as millennia of linguistically based cultural and religious isolation in discrete societal units between billions of human beings dissolves within a few decades.
What will this mean for the modern bureaucratic nation state, which evolved over the last 300 years in an environment that allowed for the voluntary and/or enforced organization of millions of individuals into separate political units on the basis of linguistic and cultural differences? What will it mean for ethnic and religious identities when a complete foreigner’s deepest worries, anxieties and hopes become intelligible? Will it still be possible to create a national state bureaucracy by training and imbuing a group of individuals with a sense of duty and commitment to a single language or cultural group? More urgently, what will it mean for human migrations around the world?
It does not appear that any think tanks or government agencies have yet woken up to the existential threats and opportunities that real-time language translation will have on national economies and political identities. For example, with no language barriers, professionals like doctors and engineers in Vietnam, Indonesia and other lower-income countries will easily compete with their counterparts in the US, Europe and Japan by offering their services on platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn to the citizens of the wealthier countries.
The complete tearing down of language barriers between ordinary people everywhere is an unprecedented development
More ominous will be the fact that manual laborers with no foreign language skills from poorer countries will have a bigger incentive than ever to risk their lives in dangerous migration attempts just to get into the wealthier countries for the sake of better wages. With no language barriers to deal with, uneducated farmers and construction workers from the poorest countries, who manage to get into any of the wealthier countries, will be able to slip smoothly into a foreign job market and take on the same work they were doing at home for higher wages than they could have dreamed of in their home countries.
Needless to say, this situation will ignite social chaos in the wealthier countries, where businesses will benefit from the cheaper labor, while the native working population will be up in arms. Furthermore, while this is already happening to a certain extent around the world, the introduction of real-time audio translation technology into the mix will vastly exacerbate the situation and lead to a tsunami of migration movements across the globe.
On the positive side, the elimination of language barriers everywhere will exponentially increase knowledge exchange between individuals and global educational institutions, which will likely spark far more advances in scientific research in a few short years than all the advances that have happened over the last 100 years.
Not only that, but certain ethnic groups that have come to dominate the US tech industry over the last few years, like Indians, will face more competition from Chinese, Russian and other ethnicities who were partly held back by their lack of fluency in English. More than ever before, this will create a global multiethnic technocratic elite of highly intelligent people who will have more in common with each other than with their ethno-religious compatriots.
Furthermore, the cohesion of local communities everywhere and even national identities will be challenged as interracial marriages will become possible between any two people in the world, regardless of whether either of them speaks the other’s language.
Whether Google’s putative CEO, Prabhakar Raghavan, is aware of it or not, his PaLM software will change human history as much or more than when our ancestors first began to communicate with each other using grunts and gestures about 100,000 years ago. By using language to exchange ever more detailed information, which we passed on to future generations, we rapidly surpassed all the other animals, using our technological and organizational power to eventually dominate the earth. It is still too early to guess where this latest paradigm shifting development in human communications will take us and what global disruptions and opportunities it will engender. However, we should hope for the best but prepare for the worst, because we have never been at a greater historical moment before.
• Nabil AlKhowaiter is a former Senior Consultant at the Saudi Ministry of Energy, a serial tech entrepreneur and the former CEO of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures.