Imagine a world without words?

While spoken languages have evolved and changed somewhat drastically over the centuries, one language has remained somewhat consistent. It’s body language: the act of speaking without words – and, going forward, it’s set to become more important than ever before.

Even at its very simplest, body language communicates a powerful and clear message. A smile, for instance, sends the message that you are happy to see someone or something. A grimace the exact opposite.

All over the world – whether someone is living in Cape Town or Copenhagen, in Durban or Denpasar – those messages are understood.

There are, of course, some aspects to body language that are wildly misunderstood. Take eye contact and touch, for instance. In most Western countries, maintaining eye contact is seen as respectful.

However, in many Asian cultures, it’s quite the opposite, and avoiding eye contact is the done thing.

And in Ghana, if a young child looks an adult in the eye, they can be considered rude. The situation with touch is similar.

Touching a young child’s head is a common way to express affection in North America. In Thailand, though, it’s considered offensive to touch a stranger’s head or hair, as the head is regarded as a sacred part of the body.

So, body language isn’t without its challenges. But it certainly abounds when it comes to possibilities. This is not to say conventional languages will die.

English, especially, will continue to be spoken in the future; it is predicted to be the verbal lingua franca.

Non-English speakers will continue to use it (although people will increasingly use instant-translation apps instead of actually learning to speak it). In a similar vein, voice commands – increasingly found on many of our favourite apps – will abound.

But, more and more, people and machines will be speaking without words – and body language will come to the fore.

This will happen thanks to the increasing use of autonomy. Many people don’t realise the scale of current automation and how much innovation is already implemented in our daily lives.

This is happening thanks to the fact that machines can do as good a job – or, in many cases, a better – than humans.

A very simple example of automation is the traffic light, a more complex example is the bot that can process your credit card application.

Going forward, we will only see more and more examples of autonomy in our lives. One of the most significant areas will be that of vehicles.

Integral to the success of this autonomous vehicle (and all others too) will be its ability to communicate with fellow road users.

According to Mikael Ljung Aust, senior technical leader for collision avoidance functions at the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, this will happen via visual cues and also via body language.

“If you want to do communication with a self-driving car, you can’t just rely on sound – hence the 360-degree visual display, which can communicate the car’s intentions to people. For example, if you’re a cyclist and you’re coming up on an intersection, you’re probably wondering if the car knows if you’re there or not. Because if you’re going straight and it’s turning, you will be in trouble.

“Therefore, we’re using a light band along the sides to actually mark that the car has seen you. A little section alongside the cyclist will light up indicating that, hello, cyclist. I’ve seen you, I’m aware, don’t worry’” he explained.