Hey you! Ever wish your technology was more invasive? You love voice-to-text, but it's just too public?
Some researchers at MIT Media Lab have come up with the perfect gadget for you. And it looks like a Bane mask crossed with a squid. Or, if you prefer: like a horror movie monster slowly encompassing your jaw before crawling into your mouth.
The researchers presented their work at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (yes such a thing exists) in March in Tokyo.
Whenever you think of words, they're silently, imperceptibly, transmitted to your mouth. More specifically, signals arrive at the muscles that control your mouth. And those signals aren't imperceptible to a highly sensitive computer.
The researchers call this device the AlterEgo. It's got seven electrodes positioned around the mouth to pick up these signals. The data that the electrodes pick up goes through several rounds of processing before being transmitted wirelessly to a device awaiting instruction nearby. Oh, and it's got bone-conduction headphones so that devices can respond.
The scientists tested their prototype on a few people who trained the software to recognize the data that corresponded to different commands ("call," "reply," "add,"), then on a few more to see how accurate it was. The results were promising, though it's not exactly ready to go into mass production.
The closest comparison to this system is a device you can address in your normal speech, like Siri or Alexa. But, terrifyingly, this is not scientists' first attempt at creating a more direct way to transmit our thoughts to computers. Most earlier versions have relied directly on brain signals (from devices laid over or implanted in the brain. No thank you).
AlterEgo has the following advantages, according to the researchers:
- It's not invasive (seems like kind of a low bar but ok)
- It's 92 percent accurate (probably marginally better than your average autocorrect, about the same as Siri or Alexa)
- It's portable (and about as sexy as one of those Bluetooth earpieces)
- Unlike direct brain readings, it can't read your private thoughts (except for the ones you quietly mouth to yourself)
I admit, in some situations a device like this might be useful. Particular movements could tell your phone to turn on music, or use a calculator, or text your friend. It could control your "smart home," turning off the oven or starting the coffeepot with a mere twitch. Heck, in 10 years, I could be thinking this article into existence. This goes double for people with disabilities or vision problems that might make controlling a digital device challenging otherwise.
BUT. But. There are a few things that might make AlterEgo less than ideal. The electrodes can't shift when a person is using them, for example, or the reading will get all messed up. It's hard to imagine that people would be comfortable hanging out with a device covering half their mouths. And there's no telling how the system would do in real-world settings — that's what the researchers have to test out next. And, of course, there's the issue of crossed signals, like when Alexa thought random sounds were telling it to laugh. And — just thinking big for a second — if it were hacked, could the hacker use the electrodes to physically control your mouth?
Might we have a future in which our faces butt-dial for us? Who's to say. But you can bet all the people in my nightmares of a dystopian future are equipped with one of these bad boys.