At the TED conference last week, MIT Media Lab’s Arnav Kapur showed that we might be one step closer to becoming cyborgs. For the first time, the 24-year old intelligence augmentation researcher conducted a live public demo of AlterEgo, his wearable device that allows users to access the internet or any computing device without typing or using our voice.
With a help of researcher Eric Wadkins, he showed how one could search the internet silently. “What is the weather in Vancouver right now?,” Kapur asked aloud. Wadkins then silently repeated Kapur’s query internally and about 15 seconds later, he correctly reported back: “It’s 50 degrees and rainy here in Vancouver.”
Kapur explained that AlterEgo works by picking up the user’s internal vocalizations—normally undetectable neuromuscular signals from the tongue and the back of the palate—and translating them to computer commands. Signals are transmitted through a “sticker,” as Kapur describes the silicone device, worn along the user’s neck and jawline, and the answers are fed through an ear piece.
Though the 2018 prototype of AlterEgo made the wearer look like he has a head injury, Kapur said they’re focused on refining the wearable to the point that they become unnoticeable. Indeed, the design he showed at TED was nearly undetectable apart from the wire coming out of Eric’s ear.
“I believe computing, AI, and the internet would disappear into us—as extensions of our cognition instead of being external entities or adversaries,” Kapur said.
Apart from telling the weather, Kapur outlined other exciting possibilities for his research. “Imagine perfectly memorizing things…crunching numbers as fast as computers do; silently texting other people; suddenly becoming multilingual so you hear the translation in you head in one language and speak in another,” Kapur said. One of the first beneficiaries of AlterEgo could be people who have lost their ability to speak because of ALS, throat cancer or stroke.
At TED, Kapur showed a brief clip of an ALS patient using AlterEgo to vocalize his thoughts. “The hope is to deploy it for people who desperately need it in terms of a clinical application, but we’re also thinking about everyone,” Kapur said. “It’s about augmenting ability—we’re thinking about building a general-purpose device. We look at it as the next personal computer.”
Kapur explained that his research offers a counterpoint to the dominance of screens and computer monitors that mediate so much of our interpersonal exchanges today. “This is a constant scene in subways, hospitals, airports, dinner conversations, dates, et cetera. How do we invert that?,” he mused. “Instead of making that box smarter, how do you improve humans so they’re more creative and connected?”
He isn’t alone in this mission. Companies like Bose are also trying to augment our world with sound, instead of overlaying any more information in front of us—although perhaps not as fantastically or invisibly. Bose’s first pair of sunglasses were released earlier this year and were met with generally positive reviews. Google Glass, the nearly defunct wearable computer, is also an early iteration of this idea, but it had the effect of making wearers look extremely dorky.
“Other wearables are like monocles…they’re in your face,” Kapur told Quartz. “We think of [AlterEgo] as a contact lens. We want humans to look like humans.”
Any new piece of technology—and one as powerfully invisible as AlterEgo—tends to raise alarm bells. “Just to be very clear, the device doesn’t read or record your thoughts,” Kapur clarified in his talk. “It records deliberate information you want to communicate through the deliberate engagement of internal speech systems.”
Kapur, who was named a TED Fellow this year, emphasized to Quartz that “volition” is the first principle of his research. By only reading signals from the voluntary part of the body, he believes that the technology can only carry out the user’s intention.
But can this technology be hacked? Can it indeed be an instrument of mind control or manipulation? “There are vulnerabilities like any piece of technology,” Kapur admitted. “But my firm belief is to talk about that early before you’re designing and try to think about every scenario.”