AlterEgo: A Wearable Technology That Controls Computers With Silent Speech

AlterEgo: A Wearable Technology That Controls Computers With Silent Speech

by Terry Heick

ed note: Featured Image: Lorrie Lejeune/MIT

Arnav Kapur was on 60 Minutes recently, and demonstrated using his mind to surf the internet.

Well, it seemed like it was his mind, which is how 60 Minutes chose to spin it, when in reality it was something called ‘silent speech.’

The wearable technology, called ‘AlterEgo’, is based at the MIT Media Lab. It works by using ‘speech-like’ vibrations as input–the method of interfacing with the computer’ (an increasingly non-specific and problematic word). The outward appearance is that the user is ‘surfing the internet with their mind,’ and while that’s not true (nor is this the only unique interfacing method), it might be a significant leap in human-technology interfacing if for no other reason than it got the attention of the mainstream.

See also 36 Ways To Use Wearable Technology In The Classroom

The video description (from the video at the top of the post) explains:

“AlterEgo is a wearable system that allows a user to silently converse with a computing device without any voice or discernible movements — thereby enabling the user to communicate with devices, AI assistants, applications, or other people in a silent, concealed, and seamless manner. A human user could transmit queries, simply by vocalizing internally (subtle internal movements) and receive aural output through bone conduction without obstructing the user’s physical senses and without invading a user’s privacy. AlterEgo aims to combine humans and computers—such that computing, the internet, and AI would weave into human personality as a “second self” and augment human cognition and abilities.”

To call this an ‘advancement’ is, of course, full of underlying assumptions. The break-neck creation and adoption of technology–without thought to its costs, scale, and human effects–is equally worth our attention and careful thinking. But because this is a blog post and not a book or even an essay, that’s another topic for another day.

For now, that the technology exists is a hint what we might be moving towards.

AlterEgo: A Wearable Technology That Controls Computers With Silent Speech

MIT recently explored how AlterEgo works:

“The device also includes a pair of bone-conduction headphones, which transmit vibrations through the bones of the face to the inner ear. Because they don’t obstruct the ear canal, the headphones enable the system to convey information to the user without interrupting the conversation or otherwise interfering with the user’s auditory experience.”

The ‘silent speech’ part is as interesting as the ‘surfs the internet without looking like he’s surfing the internet’ part, especially to anyone interested in linguistics–or anthropology for that matter. Imagine anywhere a human being–or any living thing capable of interfacing with the device and the device with it–needs data, or the ability to communicate. Theoretically–and I admit to not nearly understanding this technology well enough to contextualize its widespread application, this would enable that kind of access or communication.

In the classroom (the idea of taking extraordinary technology like this and shoe-horning it into a classroom makes me squirm, but here we are), this might look like a student quietly documenting conversations in a group project-based learning activity, or making mathematical computations while solving a physics problem. The big idea is a more seamless human-to-computer interfacing, the benefit being that the ‘human’ can do what they do well (prioritize personal needs, analyze alignment/misalignment with social norms, experience and express emotion, form relationships, etc.) while the ‘computer’ does what it does well (perform calculations, search through text, create and distribute media, curate digital artifacts, etc.)

See also The Elements Of A Digital Classroom

He describes himself as working on ‘human-machine integration in a complementary symbiosis such that computing becomes a natural extension of our own cognition,’ of which AlterEgo is obviously only a small step.

This is all somewhat reminiscent of the ill-fated ‘Google Glass’ project that looked amazing but had very little chance of success for reasons ranging from cost and packaging to marketing and related-tech-ecosytems and APIs.

But it’s still cool.

AlterEgo: A Wearable Technology That Controls Computers With Silent Speech