Our thoughts are not going to be your own if you dare to don AlterEgo, MIT Media Lab's new wearable. The white gadget hooks around your ear and extends to just under your lips, looking like something one might see on a patient in a hospital bed.
AlterEgo is fitted with electrodes whose job is to measure tiny, unseeable facial movements that are known to occur when we think in words. These neuromuscular signals, triggered by internal verbalisations, tally with the words they represent when spoken aloud, which means if you measure the movements, you know the words and, therefore, the thoughts of the person.
The signals are fed to a machine-learning system that has been trained to correlate particular signals with particular words as part of the experiment at MIT.
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 do not obstruct the ear canal, the headphones enable the system to convey information to the user without interrupting a conversation or otherwise interfering with the user's auditory experience.
"The device is part of a complete silent-computing system that lets the user undetectably pose and receive answers to difficult computational problems. In one of the researchers' experiments, for instance, subjects used the system to silently report opponents' moves in a chess game and just as silently receive computer-recommended responses," says the MIT blog.
"The motivation for this was to build an intelligence-augmentation (IA) device," says Arnav Kapur, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, who led the development of the new system. "Our idea was: Could we have a computing platform that is more internal, that melds human and machine in some ways and that feels like an internal extension of our cognition?"
Although at a research level now, a future wearable, perhaps less prominent on the face and tied with a smartphone, could have interesting real-life use cases. Subvocalisation as a computer interface could be used in crime investigation instead of the lie detectors that exist today because subvocalisation is largely involuntary - it cannot be helped just as one cannot help thinking although it can be controlled with an effort. There is some talk of whether the technology could be used to communicate in noisy environments such as near jet engines. In that case, signals from the face would be translated into words where someone else can see them or even hear them through a headset. Another possibility is that the internal speech could replace typing.