A Lingua Franca for the digital age

face by Adrew Morrell PhotographyAccording to the bible story, The Tower of Babel, once upon a time we all spoke the same language.

Which was a huge advantage.

It allowed the peoples of the world to work together and build their famous tower – which would have reached right up to heaven if God hadn’t taken offense. To punish our insolence he scattered us to the corners of the earth and condemned us to speak multiple tongues, fated to misunderstand each other forever.

The ability to communicate and collaborate without language barriers is what historically builds successful, productive, innovative societies. Things break down when we can’t exchange ideas or mediate disputes clearly and efficiently.

Today, the communication issue we face is not how we communicate with each other, but how we communicate with the computers we’ve created to help us better communicate.

A QR code is easily read by computers but to humans it’s just a bunch of squares whereas for a human, a face carries and communicates layers and layers of emotional, aesthetic, cultural, anthropological data. Faces fascinate us.

We have an amazing, animal ability to cross-reference every face we encounter against the enormous database of information we accrue throughout our lives. Faces fascinate us is because reading them is the first language we learn as infants. It’s a vital survival skill.

But when computers get involved in faces and emotions we get anxious – the moment computers approach a human-like ability to recognise and interpret faces (as they now can) our uniqueness as a humans comes under threat. And because computers can perform multiple tasks at once in a way we can’t, it means scary things start to happen.

CCTV can recognise us and track our movements around a city. Cinemas can watch you as you watch films and see when you smiled and Facebook can identify a billion people by scanning photos uploaded to the largest picture library ever created. (But c’mon, people – the clue was always in the name.)

Lawmakers, civil libertarians, journalists, artists, have all become incredibly adept at fighting this Orwellian future in which there is ‘nowhere to hide’. But are they right to feel so threatened?

We have all these tools now. But it’s our responsibility to decide how we use them. I spoke at the Adobe Create Now conference about the ethical responsibilities that we have, as creators, to use these technological superpowers for good, not for evil. And I believe we have a duty to guide this debate, to utilise these tools positively, not abdicate responsibility and resist them.

After all, the ability to recognise faces and compare them to the individual profiles we store in our head is the ability we depend on to make all human relationships and societies function. My local corner shop owner recognises me. She knows she can expect to see me again and safely extend credit. She understands the link with my kids too. She remembers my preferences and can predict my purchasing behaviour. Her business depends on it.

At Imagination we want to know how effective our experiential events and exhibitions are – are people enjoying what they’re looking at? If not, we need to improve them. Reading individual emotions and quantifying them allows us to do that.

Our goal is the creation of what we call ‘emotionally intelligent spaces’ – physical architectural environments that can respond to the humans who enter and use them.

The very technologies that seem to threaten us most can actually provide a common language that both we humans, and our computer servants, can understand and use. There is an opportunity here to use technology to make our world a better, more enriching place to inhabit. It’s up to us whether we seize or shirk it.

Used correctly, it’s a language that will allow us to build our own towers to heaven. And this time, perhaps God will indulge our ambition, not feel the urge to divide and conquer.

Matthew Maxwell is digital creative director at Imagination