Short Story

Understood

By Jennifer Farwell

A young scientist reveals that anyone can be understood with a little Artificial Intelligence.

09 Min Read Time

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This was it. Showtime.

The rows of seats in the auditorium were filled with some of the most powerful government officials in the world alongside heads of global organizations in charge of health and social issues. A few of the world’s wealthiest investors sat beside executives from big hotels, travel tycoons and airline companies.

Curious tech journalists, too, sat eagerly in the front row, jumping at the chance to see if this was for real. It was all too real.

This audience held the power and influence to determine the future of this project, my project. And their reaction would impact the millions — perhaps even billions — of people that could benefit from this tool.

The house lights dimmed, leaving me illuminated by a spotlight on the stage. A hush fell over the crowd, and all eyes in the room were on me.

I wanted their attention and focus.

But even so, I felt beads of sweat form at my temples and at the nape of my neck, where my dark waves of hair were gathered into a thick ponytail.

I smiled at everyone, hoping they didn’t see my trembling hands. My years of research, development and testing all came down to the next few minutes and the presentation I was about to give.

It was the first time I’d presented on my own in my 28 years. Up until this point, I’d always had someone read notes on my behalf or translate words as I signed them.

That changed today, and hopefully for the rest of time, not only for me, but for all those who wanted to communicate with a world that didn’t understand them or spoke a different language than the people around them.

“Hello,” I signed to everyone in attendance, then held up a small object. It probably looked like a hair clip to my many viewers, capped with a tiny power switch. I turned it on and fastened it to my hair so that its base — where the receivers were — sat on top of my scalp. Then I simply thought.

“Hi everyone. My name is Hannah Strong, and today I’m demonstrating a new technology powered by AI that can collapse language and communication barriers. It can help people like me, who have speech limitations or disabilities, convey thoughts and feelings.”

“It can also help anyone out there who travels or relocates to another part of the world where they don’t speak the language. This technology makes it possible to speak to and understand anyone, no matter what language they speak or how they communicate.”

I pause for a few seconds, then point at the device I’ve just clipped to my hair.

“I call it Mediary,” I continued, in my thoughts. “All it requires is a few hours for the user to teach Mediary. This mostly involves the user wearing a device like the one you see on my head and making a few selections on a mobile app. From here, Mediary aligns with the user’s brain waves and some other key vital signs to pair thought with speech.”

“Once Mediary learns the user’s personal signals and communication style, it’s ready to use to speak with others in the language and style of their choice. The language or communication style can be selected manually by the user, or Mediary can be set to intuitively recognize how to communicate based on signals, words or other information it receives from the person or people on the other side of the conversation.”

The voice everyone hears through the auditorium speakers sounds as I always imagined I would. My words are in English, flowing naturally and with no delays, as if I’d opened my mouth to speak them. I haven’t, though. Mediary is doing it for me in real time, with no delay.

I have Mediary switch to Japanese. I repeat what I just said, then do it again, this time in French. There’s silence for a moment, and then a wild burst of cheers and applause. I feel my lips curve into a grin, and I look out into the crowd, where I see my sister fighting back tears.

The one thing I’ve wanted most since my memory began was for others to understand me. Back then, I was a three-year-old girl whose parents and relatives struggled to make sense of the sounds that came from my mouth and the signals I’d give them. I didn’t know why they couldn’t connect the dots or see, hear or perceive things the way I could.

As someone with nonverbal autism, for as long as I can remember, I was used to the labels others used to define me. Even though I was a pro with sign language, could write just fine, read more books in a week than some people do in a year, and was considered genius-level when it came to programming — it was still a struggle to be heard.

Today was the first time everyone could hear what I wanted to tell them in a language and voice they understood, at the very moment I wanted to tell them — without sign language interpreters.

The response of everyone in the auditorium needed no translation. Today was the start of a whole new world for them, even if they had the ability to speak one or more languages already.

Mediary would let them travel to any corner of the world and converse with anyone.

Excitement and anticipation for the future coursed through me, knowing that everyone who wanted to communicate in a new language or convey a specific thought would soon be able to do so seamlessly.

What’s more, anyone who had held back from exploring parts of the world because of a language barrier would now be able to travel anywhere and be, for the first time in that new place, understood.