Say goodbye to Alexa and hello to gadgets listening to the voice inside your head

Rachel Metz | MIT Technology Review | Source URL

Controlling your gadgets by talking to them is so 2018. In the future, you won’t even have to move your lips.

A prototype device called AlterEgo, created by MIT Media Lab graduate student Arnav Kapur, is already making this possible. With Kapur’s device—a 3-D-printed plastic doodad that looks kind of like a skinny white banana attached to the side of his head—he can flip through TV channels, change the colors of lightbulbs, make expert chess moves, solve complicated arithmetic problems, and, as he recently showed a 60 Minutes crew, order a pizza, all without saying a word or lifting a finger. It can be used to let people communicate silently and unobtrusively with each other, too.

“I do feel like a cyborg, but in the best sense possible,” he says of his experience with the device, which he built as a research project.

AlterEgo does not read minds, though it may sound that way. Rather, it picks up on the itty-bitty electrical signals produced by small movements of our facial and neck muscles when we silently read or talk to ourselves. AlterEgo’s electrodes capture these signals and send them via Bluetooth to a computer, where they can be decoded by algorithms and then acted on (“Turn on the light,” for example). The system includes bone conduction headphones to give you feedback and let you know (in a computerized voice) what other AlterEgo wearers are trying to tell you, without blocking your ears.

It’s like being personally connected to the Internet, and without it, Kapur says, “I feel normal all of a sudden.”

In a world where rapidly improving artificial intelligence is becoming a source of anxiety (in a “robots are going to take over and kill us or at least take our jobs” way), Kapur sees AlterEgo as a sort of antidote. He spent the last year working on the device to show how AI can help augment rather than replace us.

He envisions it as a new kind of computer, which can be used in a way that is less demanding of your attention than tapping and swiping on a smartphone and more intimate (and quiet) than barking commands at Alexa. Though it’s still just an early-stage prototype, he imagines it being helpful for, say, calling an Uber, or making it easier for people with speech impediments and voice disorders to communicate.

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