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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Happens When the Tower of Babel is Turned Upside Down?

Once in a while a novel contemporary technology raises new questions regarding an ancient biblical story. This week’s Torah reading is a case in point. It includes one of the most famous legends: the Tower of Babel, in which the people’s hubris to “reach the heights” leads to linguistic dispersion. On the face of it, this was God’s punishment: no longer would all of humanity speak the same language and be able to understand everyone else.

That stood the test of time for thousands of years until now. A major “language” revolution is developing with not much public discussion: SATS – Simultaneous Automatic Translation Systems (aka “Google Translation” – but not others as well).

If you tried any SATS in the past and couldn’t stop laughing at the mistakes, beware: it’s no longer a laughing matter. Today such systems are amazingly accurate in translating between major languages, and increasingly useful for more esoteric tongues or highly technical terms. (These systems learn from billions of texts in the public domain; the more texts out there in a specific language or related to an area of life, the better they become at translation.)

To be sure, there are naysayers and doubters who claim that SATS could never fully “comprehend” all the cultural nuances in certain texts. That might be true – but professional, human translators have much the same difficulty. Moreover, some terms don’t have any parallel words in other languages (e.g., most Amazon Basin languages don’t have a word for “snow”) – but emojis and other graphics can now overcome that handicap.

What are the ramifications of a universal SATS that is easily accessible/usable by anyone (for example, through an unobtrusive necklace/mic and earrings/speakers)?

First, a huge boost for tourism as people can visit anywhere and converse with the locals.

Second, an even bigger boost for economic globalization – not only can anyone conduct business across the world, but workers could relocate to anywhere without worrying about linguistic comprehension.

Third, of the 6000+ languages spoken today in the world, around 3000 are in danger of extinction in the coming decades (Ladino among them; Yiddish will survive because it’s the “mama loschen” for many haredim); but with SATS their speakers can continue speaking their minor language and still be linguistically connected to the rest of the world. Indeed, just this week it was reported that “AI translates Hokkien, an unwritten [Taiwanese] language, for the first time” (https://tech.fb.com/artificial-intelligence/2022/10/ai-translation-unwritten-language/).

Fourth, in several countries, language constitutes the central point of cleavage e.g., Belgium, South Africa (English vs. Afrikaans vs. Bantu), Canada (English and French), and increasingly in the U.S. (English and Spanish). Israel, too, has such a problem with the recent downgrading of Arabic. But with SATS, all language speakers in a country can communicate freely with everyone else in their own tongue, thereby lessening socio-cultural tensions.

Fifth and similarly, SATS would also reduce (but not completely erase) antagonism to greater regional integration of nations, as daily communicative translation can lead to greater interaction (face-to-face or screen/text-mediated) with, and greater appreciation of, other national cultures under the common, regional umbrella (e.g., the Abraham Accords).

To be sure, some consequences would be negative and positive at one and the same time. For example, SATS will render immigration even more attractive for those desperate to leave poverty and chaos behind and start a new life elsewhere – given the elimination of language barriers for the immigrants needing to assimilate socially, integrate economically, and have their young educated in a public school. Whether the absorbing nation sees this as a net plus or an incentive for further unwanted illegal immigration, is a political matter, perhaps exacerbated by SATS undercutting the new immigrants’ need to actually learn the language of their new homeland (imagine Israel’s African refugees who could immediately communicate with Hebrew speakers…). Then again, SATS would enable such poverty-stricken (but somewhat educated) potential immigrants to remain in their homeland and work from afar i.e., a huge boost to global outsourcing of Information Age work while (perhaps) ameliorating the mass immigration problem.

Other areas of life would be impacted. Briefly, think of international journalism (greater access to world news); cross-national disinformation campaigns (with bots); the slowing evolution of languages (the end of linguistic “borrowing”?); and so on.

Finally, if SATS does become ubiquitous, there’s a contemporary ramification as well: our children – and certainly grandchildren – don’t have to learn English because SATS will lead to its demise as the world’s lingua franca, given that there’s no need to acquire any foreign language! Educators take note.

Returning to our weekly reading, parshat Noah, all of this leads to some final food for thought. Perhaps God’s dispersing the Tower of Babel builders wasn’t really a punishment but rather a blessing? After all, we know that diversity leads to greater creativity and productivity. In that case, SATS would not be a way of “circumventing God’s plan” but the opposite: enabling us to retain our different cultural identities while also facilitating far greater coordination between all of the human race. In the end, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too! Be’tay’avon / בתאבון [Hearty Appetite; Bon Appetit; Con Apetito; Goede Eetlust…].

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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