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夏笳 | 让我们说说话

让我们说说话

夏笳

2015年6月,王瑶 (笔名夏笳) 的科幻小说《Let's have a talk》在《Nature》发表,这是中国作家在《Nature》的Future栏目中刊登的第二部作品。这位北大中文系博士从年少时代起就热爱幻想类小说创作,至今已发表多篇科幻作品。代表作《关妖精的瓶子》于2004年获中国科幻最高奖银河奖。她也因这部作品入选2015中国十大新锐科技人物。

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很少有什么情况需要把一个语言学家半夜三更从床上叫起来。

电话铃响起时刚过凌晨三点。一个阴沉沉的声音说需要我立刻过去。听到这话,我的第一反应是:“诶哟,真来了,外星人。”

在一间黑漆漆的小屋里,我跟几个奇怪的人见了面,然后一起看了一段奇怪的视频片段:一群白色的小海豹挤挤挨挨,叽叽喳喳,像是把一座动物园、一间修车厂和一所幼儿园搅合在一起。

“这是……什么鬼?”有人抢先我一步问出这个问题。

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我们听到一段离奇的解释:这些小海豹是一家实验室设计的人工智能玩具,它们可以像刚出生的婴儿一样,从零基础开始模仿并学习人类说话。设计指南声称它们最终可以获得大约相当于五岁小孩的语言水平。

实验室工作人员原本将一百个样品装进一个集装箱中,打算运送到国外去做测试,却粗心大意贴错了物流标签。当他们费尽周折找到丢失的货箱,打开货箱门时,却看到那一百头本该安安静静处于关机状态的小海豹,居然自顾自地吵成一团。

“看上去好像它们在用某种我们听不懂的外星语言聊天。”一个疑虑重重的声音穿破黑暗。

“这正是需要搞清楚的问题。”一位黑衣男板着脸冲我们点一点头,他是这场深夜会议的主持人。“这可能吗?谁教给它们的?要知道货箱从头到尾都是锁上的。”

“Sealed seals.(密封的海豹)”我偷偷嘀咕一句。幸好没有人听见我的冷笑话。

“我想起一个相似的例子。”黑暗中的声音说道。“Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua,简称ISN,中文叫‘尼加拉瓜手语’。这是上个世纪七八十年代,住在尼加拉瓜西部的一些聋哑儿童们集体创造的一种语言。”

“具体说说看。”黑衣男显然对此很感兴趣。

“是这样的,过去尼加拉瓜并没有聋哑人社区,也没有通用的聋哑人语言。直到上世纪七十年代,才在西部建成了几座专为聋哑儿童开设的职业学校,陆陆续续有了几百个学生。尼加拉瓜的官方语言是西班牙语,所以一开始,学校老师尝试教孩子们读懂西班牙语的唇语,但孩子们搞不明白那些单词的意思,学习效果很差。然而谁也没有想到,在每天学习玩耍和结伴上下学的过程中,孩子们逐渐学会了自己用手语交谈。他们将肢体动作与每个人自己在家使用的手语符号相结合,最终创造出一种新的语言系统。这大概是人类历史上唯一一次,我们亲眼目睹一种语言像神话故事中一样,被从无到有创造出来。”

“也许是第一,但不是唯一。”另一个声音插话道。“大约十多年前,昆士兰大学的一个团队设计研发了一款会自己发明语言的机器人,叫做Lingodroids。这些机器人能探索迷宫,并从语料库里选出一些音节,来为到过的地方命名。当它们相遇时,会用麦克风和扬声器相互交换这些地名,然后慢慢建立起一套描述方位和距离的共同词汇表。” 

“可我们怎么知道这些机器人在说些什么鬼话?”不知从哪里传来第三个声音。“搞不好某个听上去无害的词,在它们语言里真正的意思却是‘武装暴动’?”

这本该是句玩笑话,却没有一个人笑。

“谁再说两句?”黑衣男环顾四周。

“为什么是海豹?”我大声说。

“什么?”

“不奇怪吗,为什么是海豹?为什么不是小猫小狗?”

“这重要吗?”黑衣男耸耸肩。

“也许设计师希望这些产品的模样越天真无害越好。”我沉思道。“也许这恰恰说明了,我们心底里深深知道自己究竟是多么害怕跟陌生的异类说话。”

“你到底想说什么?”

“我想说,为什么我们不关掉监控录像,走出这间小黑屋,去直接跟这些……这些东西面对面说说话,如果我们真的相信它们已经创造出一种全新的语言?所有语言学者都知道,要学会一种陌生的语言,唯一的办法就是去跟对方交流,去打招呼,去问问题,去回答他们的问题。如果不先派一个人去敲货箱的门,去说声‘你好’,那我们将永远不可能知道它们究竟在说什么。”

#

我走进黑漆漆的货箱,小海豹们安静下来,睁大水汪汪的眼睛盯着我看。谢天谢地,小海豹要比任何一种牙尖爪利的动物看上去乖巧得多。我张开双手,掌心向上,表示没有藏武器,就像当年第一次做田野调查时一样。尽管我明白,在小海豹的语言体系里,这个姿势也许根本没有任何意义。

机器人不得伤害人类;

机器人必须保护自身安全。

So high, so low, so many things to know.

永远有那么多新鲜事要学习。

“你好。”

我用自己最熟悉的母语跟它们打招呼,然后耐心等待。

离我最近的一只小海豹伸出一只毛茸茸的前爪放在我的掌心,然后张嘴打了个大大的哈欠。

我尽自己所能模仿它。这是它们说你好的方式吗?或者仅仅是个哈欠而已?无论怎样,就这样开始似乎并不坏。

“让我们说说话。”我轻声低语。“好不好?”

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Let's have a talk

Xia Jia

There are few reasons to call a linguist after midnight.

It was three in the morning when the phone woke me. A gloomy voice said they needed me right now. My first response was: Uh-oh, they're finally here. Aliens.

I met with some odd people in an odd dark room, where we watched odd video clips: a flock of white seal pups huddled together, clamoring continuously, sounding vaguely like a zoo mixed with a parking garage and a kindergarten.

“What the hell is that?” Someone beat me to the question.

We listened to the explanation. A lab designed these intelligent toys, which could imitate and learn human languages from scratch, as newborn babies do. The design summary claimed that the seal pups could ultimately master the equivalent of a five-years-old's language skills.

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The lab staff had packed a hundred prototypes in a container to be shipped to beta users; however, the container was mislabeled. When the container was finally tracked down, retrieved, and opened, the staff found the seals, which ought to have been powered down and lying on their bellies silently, were instead making an astonishing ruckus. 

“It looks like they are talking with each other in some alien language we can't understand,” an incredulous voice penetrated the darkness.

“That is the very thing we must figure out.” A man in black, who conducted this midnight meeting, nodded at us, poker-faced.“Is that possible? Who taught them? Remember, the container was sealed the entire time.” 

“Sealed seals,” I murmured. Luckily no one heard me.

“There was a similar case. ISN, Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua,” the voice in the darkness replied. “It's a sign language developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.”

“Tell me more.” Evidently the man in black found this interesting.

“Well, before the 1970s, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Then a couple of vocational schools were established there and hundreds of deaf students enrolled. The language program, which tried to teach students to lipread Spanish words, initially achieved little success. Meanwhile, however, the schoolyard, the street, and the school bus proved to be fertile testing grounds for students figuring out how to communicate with each other on their own. By combining gestures and elements of their individual, idiosyncratic, homegrown sign systems, a new type of sign language rapidly emerged, which is now known as Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua. It is the only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air.”

“Not exactly,” another voice interrupted. “Actually, someone later created robots with an ability to develop their own language. These so-called Lingodroids were designed to navigate their way through a labyrinth and to create words for mapped locations using a database of syllables. They communicated their findings to each other with microphones and speakers, thereby spawning new words for direction and distance as well.”

“How do we know what the Lingodroids were talking about?” said a third voice. “Isn't it possible that a word that sounds innocuous could mean, for example, ‘armed revolt’?”

The idea of those simple robots conspiring should have been funny, but none of us laughed.

“Any more ideas?” The man in black looked around.

“Why seal pups?” I asked loudly.

“What?”

“They look weird. Why couldn't you have chosen puppies or kittens?”

“I don't think that's important.” He shrugged.

“Maybe the designer wanted them to appear as timid and inoffensive as possible,” I mused. “Doesn't this imply that we fear talking creatures unconsciously?”

“What's your point?”

“I mean, why don't we turn off this video screen, walk out of this dark room, and talk with these...things directly, since we believe they've already developed their own language? All linguists know that the only way to learn an unknown language is to communicate with a native speaker, to point at objects and ask questions, and to answer their questions as well. We certainly will never understand what they are talking about if we don't knock on the door of that sealed container and say hello first.”

#

I stepped through the door, and all the seal pups fell silent and watched me with their big crystal eyes. Thank God. Seal pups seem much better than creatures with teeth and claws. I extended both of my hands to show there was no hidden weapon, just as I was trained to do in my first field practice, knowing full well that this gesture was probably meaningless in their linguistic system.

A ROBOT MAY NOT INJURE A HUMAN BEING, WHILE IT MUST PROTECT ITS OWN EXISTENCE.

So high, so low, so many things to know.

“你好。” I said hello in my mother tongue, and waited patiently.

The nearest seal pup put a fluffy paw in my flat palm, and spoke—it sounded like a great big yawn.

I tried my best to imitate it. I could be saying hello, or else just yawning. Anyway it was not a bad start.  

“让我们说说话?” I asked gently. Let's have a talk, shall we?

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本文由作者王瑶 (夏笳) 授权发布,特别致谢

 

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