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Symbolic chat

I’ve been sitting on this idea for years, thinking vaguely that it could one day be my exit strategy, or even my moral salvation.

The idea is this. Work with some linguists to define a small, manageable set of concepts that provide enough expressive power to allow for basic communication. Maybe 30-40 symbols max, for things like “big”, “small”, “male”, “female”, “old”, “young”, “go”, “do”, “make”, etc. Then create  glyphs for these concepts that are easily recognizable anywhere in the world. Then add some modifiers — color-codes or background shapes that turn the glyph into a noun, a verb, an adjective, past tense, future tense, etc.

So now you have a very rudimentary symbolic alphabet that people can use to communicate even if they don’t speak a common language. Today, you could easily implement this as a client program that sits on top of AIM or any other chat platform, and seed it in cyber-cafés all over the world. (That was going to be the moral salvation part — help foster world peace by breaking down language barriers and showing that all humans are wired with the same basic concepts. Something like that.)

Here’s the part that really got me going. In addition to the basic set of glyphs, which you could rack up like a bunch of emoticons in your chat window,  you could also combine glyphs to create more specific concepts. For example, “old” + “female” + “family” would become “grandmother”. This would happen organically, as more people started using the system, and would gradually lead to a much more expressive language, with local variations and “dialects”. Which is exactly what happened with Twitter, for example, where the 140-char limit inspired a whole new lexicon of abbreviations.

Imagine my surprise when i learned, about a month ago, that IBM has developed a real-time machine translation system that translates web pages and instant messages in more than 10 languages. It’s called n.Fluent, and it is rocking my world. It’s based largely on the crowdsourced wisdom of bilingual IBMers, and is currently topping out at 36 million words.

So, my idea is now officially “quarkstone RT n.Fluent @IBM”… but i’m still crossing my fingers for that world peace thing.

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