Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost in Translation—Scanning Brain Activity

“Metamorphosis” (TOS) gives us another significant detail about how the Universal Translator (UT) functions: it scans brain activity. As far as I know, this concept is not mentioned in any other episode (but please correct me if I’m missing something). The idea that the UT can scan a person’s thoughts might help solve some of the translation problems based on pure pattern recognition and contextual clues. But some other problems are potentially created in the process.

Universal Thought Patterns

Kirk explains that there are certain universal thought patterns that the UT can detect. Is this a plausible idea? Could diverse races, with disparate nervous systems, and divergent forms of communication, have certain universal convergent brain activity?

On one hand this seems hard to accept. We know, for example, the Ferengi four-lobed brain structure (as well as that of their cousins the Dopterians) is different enough that Betazoids cannot read their thoughts (except when they can - scroll down to the section "Reading Ferengi Minds"). And you would think there are other species with even more exotic brain structures and through patterns that are correspondingly more unrecognizable.

On the other hand, we have Kirk’s clear statement that this is the case, and there are a few factors that can help us accept the statement as generally true. We know that in the Star Trek universe the humanoid races have a common genetic heritage from a race of humanoid progenitors (“The Chase”, TNG). So we might expect that the biological similarities carry over into the basic way their brains function. However this cannot be a complete explanation because Kirk made the statement in reference to a non-corporeal cloud that clearly did not share that line of descent.

But we also have a line of thought presented in “Emergence” (TNG), where Data shows that there are fundamental similarities between biological neurology, his own positronic brain, and the emerging intelligence developing from the Enterprise computer systems. Perhaps those patterns of organization are also true even in non-corporeal beings.

In other words, these universal thought patterns may basically be a kind of convergent evolution—a case of form follows function. While dragonfly wings and butterfly wings are quite different in some respects, in other respects they share certain basic characteristics because they do basically the same thing. They are both wings and we immediately recognize them as such. Now compare those wings to the wings of bird or a bat, and you will see even greater structural differences, but the same high level similarities.

So perhaps whatever conditions make consciousness possible fall within a certain range of combinations that can be detected and understood by the UT. This would certainly make the task of translating easier, but we have to be careful how powerful we make this ability.

Reading Minds

Assuming there are universal thought patterns, and assuming you can scan and recognize them, we have to ask how powerful and precise this method is. If the UT can perfectly recognize what you are thinking of as you say it, then it can perfectly recognize what you are thinking of but choose not to say.

Various episodes suggest there are certain aggressive, invasive, and generally unscrupulous methods of extracting information from someone’s mind, but this is never presented as a simple or widely used technology. This places serious limits on what exactly the UT can learn from your brain activity. In other words, it is doubtful that the UT can scan your brain for specific words, as much as it must gain some of the contextual clues that would normally have to be supplied by extensive observation. This in turn aids the verbal pattern recognition.

Consider the example Kirk used. He said that the UT can detect gender this way and assign an appropriate voice. (It is difficult to explain how a cloud entity has gender, which is certainly not a fundamental requirement for life. Even many biological life forms are asexual.) Perhaps the universal thought patterns that the UT can recognize are along these lines: categories of thought, rather than specific thoughts.

For example, perhaps in all intelligent beings there are certain thought patterns associated with nouns that are quite distinct from the patterns associated with verbs. Even noun-thoughts may come in distinct categories: people, animals, food, numbers. Each might relate to certain general thought patterns.

Really, this kind of categorical approach is essential since many specific words could not be translated anyways. Consider the word wolf. It refers to a specific animal only found on Earth (as far as we know, anyways). There simply would be no word for wolf in an extraterrestrial language – it isn’t a universal concept. But predator probably is a universal (or near-universal) concept. So perhaps the UT could detect that this untranslatable word “wolf” falls into the category of predator (or has a certain probability of being a predator). Based on this conclusion, other words in the sentence, which might correspond to other recognizable thought patters, might be easier to translate.

So restricting the UT’s brain scanning abilities to categories of thought, rather than allowing it to become a universal mind-reading device, not only makes good sense dramatically, but is also reasonably consistent with the realities of translation. There are only so many truly universal experiences, and therefore only so many truly universal concepts, and therefore only so many truly universal thought patterns. Those patterns might fall within the realm of categories and probabilities that could guide translation, rather than providing direct access to someone’s thoughts all on their own.

Next: Lost in Translation-Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

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