Are data a new language?The development and evolution of human language is an extremely long and complex thing, which also is strictly related with the biological and morphological evolution of the homo species, but which — to this day — is not incontrovertibly ascertained and known. What we know for sure is that — as our species is characterized by a strong sociality — language arises from the need for reciprocal communication. And, of course, it presupposes the presence of organs capable of transmitting and receiving sounds, as well as encoding and decoding them. The anatomical structure of man was in fact fundamental, so that such an articulate and complex language could be developed, which, for example, was impossible for other mammals.
This has made this human characteristic in turn become the basis of the extraordinary development of thought, but — at the same time — it has prevented us from communicating with other living species. We have studied life, the world, the universe, but we are unable to develop complex communication with other species. At the most, we are able to ensure that some animal species associate pieces of our language with the execution of certain actions, but without this implying even a partial understanding of the language itself. And, conversely, through observation we are able to associate certain sounds, emitted by other species, with other actions.
As humans, we have also developed other forms of non-phonetic language. Naturally apart from the alphabet, as a transcription of the spoken language, there is the language of signs used to communicate with the deaf, there is an iconic language …
All forms of human language, however, function exclusively within the species.
The other animals also speak. And even in that case, in general, it can be noted that the presence of language is related to sociability, rather than to intelligence. Equally, it does not appear that any species is able to communicate with another, through any language.
Otherwise, plants maybe are able to do this. It is known that, more or less like many other living species, they are sensitive to sound; in fact they can perceive sound vibrations, in particular the lowest ones, between 100 and 500 Hz (which favor the germination of seeds and the growth) as they are similar to the sounds of nature, for example that of flowing water. Far less well known is that they talk to each other. We know that roots make sounds, and are able to perceive them in turn. But above all, they are certainly able to communicate with other plants, through the emission of volatile chemical molecules. They send out danger signals in case of attacks by parasites, and are even able to sense if a plant is in trouble, and feed it through the roots of neighboring ones.
Always the roots are crossed by a slight current of hydrogen ions, which creates an electric field; and every variation of this field is felt by the roots of neighboring plants.
Plants, therefore, also have sense organs, and are able to emit signals.
All this tells us that every living species — or at least the most evolved ones — is equipped with sensors, through which it perceives the inputs coming from the outside world and its peers, has output tools, through which it sends signals and communicates with other examples of the species, and this communication is based on a set (which can be extremely basic, or highly complex) of codified elements, each of which has a precise meaning. This set is, in fact, the specific language.
The various languages, of the different living species, however, are incommunicable. Not only because they adopt different codes, and/or because these codes are also of a very varied complexity, but also because the intellectual sphere is very different, obviously also in a considerably significant way. And, as has been said, there is no direct relationship between the richness of communication codes and cognitive capacity. For example, the octopus is one of the most intelligent animals but, being quite social, it has a reduced linguistic code.
All species, however, and also beyond languages (i.e. intentional expressions), are capable of producing information that can be recorded as data. The binary code, therefore, is to all intents and purposes a hyper-code, because any linguistic code can be translated into binary code; and in turn, the reverse procedure is possible: the binary code can be translated into any other code.
Of course, we are not assuming some sort of Google Translator that works between different species, nor are we imagining a futuristic possibility of conversation between a man, a robin and a geranium plant. However, it is possible to imagine an information ecosystem, a series of intraspecific data-sets, which allow to broaden mutual knowledge, and therefore to improve coexistence. We can, for example, record the chemical and electromagnetic activity of plants, and then use this data to better understand their life; just as, conversely, we can transmit information — in the form of electric fields or through the release of molecules into the air — to the plants themselves.
We know that the appearance of language (a process that lasted thousands and thousands of years) has in turn produced, through a subsequent very long evolution, the landing on the extraordinary cognitive capacity of man as we know him. Obviously, we cannot predict, nor would it have a real interest, if and how much the increase in information that they could receive through a data-language could affect the evolution of other species. But even just exchanging feedback could translate into a significant leap in quality, in mutual cohabitation on planet earth. It is urgently needed.
[Enrico Tomaselli / 2022-03-18