People attending Microsoft Inspire in July this year must have wondered whether they were watching a 'Beam me up, Scottie' type of scene from Star Trek. It started when Julia White, Corporate Vice President of Azure Marketing, showed off what the HoloLens 2 (mixed reality) headset could do in sync with other cutting-edge technologies. The result was jaw-dropping.
After donning the headset, White explained how frequently she had to travel on work assignments and the big problem she faced - she could not always speak the local tongue. White then held out her palm and a green mini-me materialised on it. Next, she commanded the hologram to scale, and within seconds, a life-size clone of White stood on the stage, dressed in the same outfit (it was created at Microsoft's Mixed Reality Capture Studios). Of course, the world had seen ultra-realistic holograms before, even those developed by Canadian scientists which could be seen without special gadgets like headsets. The scientists called the system TeleHuman2, but White's virtual double was way better. It started to deliver a keynote in Japanese, moving as she does in real life and emulating her tones and vocal inflexions. True, the hologram did not lip-sync too well and sounded a little more muted and sober than the real White. But it did a good job considering that White does not speak Japanese, and the entire keynote was machine-translated.
The entire effect was made possible by using 3D-capture technology, Azure Translate, neural text-to-speech and artificial intelligence (AI). The video is freely available online, and viewers can see how such 'holoportation' may turn out to be a common form of interaction across distances in the not-so-distant future. Microsoft had previously demonstrated the use of holograms for telepresence. But photorealistic holograms rendered in 3D, as in the case of White, will enable more realistic participation and interaction.
However, the technology is not yet ready for the mass market. The HoloLens alone costs over $4,000 and requires other contributing technologies to work in sync. Microsoft has been at the forefront of mixed reality (MR) research for some years now and intends to leverage the entire bunch of technologies for specific use cases across industries. Airbus, for example, has started testing MR solutions with Microsoft. The aeronautics company has identified 300 use cases where holographic and other MR solutions can be applied to achieve its aircraft production goals. These solutions can be used to help workers get instructions and information while they are on the job. In fact, be it product design, construction or architecture, communication or entertainment, interactive holograms, which can be touched and manipulated, will take things to an entirely new level of precision, efficiency and creativity. The HoloLens headset also offers eye-tracking that can sense what you are looking at and produce relevant information along with automatic scrolling as you read on. Users can log in via iris recognition, making information-sharing among multiple co-workers easy and secure.
Now Thought-control Your Computer
Elon Musk is at it again. His start-up called Neuralink is exploring the ultimate in the brain-machine interface (BMI) - humans controlling computers with their thoughts. By way of proof of concept, a chip with 3,000 electrodes, all fitted with an array of ultra-thin polymer threads, has been developed so that it can be implanted into the brain by a robot. Once that is done, the device can analyse neuron activities in a specific area and stimulate a limited set of neurons by using artificial intelligence (AI). But the chip would, by no means, control or affect the entire brain. Details of how the brain-technology connection takes place are sketchy. But Musk hinted at a Bluetooth-like activity and said that "a monkey has been able to control the computer with his brain". Neuralink is currently waiting for regulatory approval to start trials on humans.
The idea, for now, is to ensure that people with serious neurological disorders can control gadgets and machines, thus empowering them to 'talk' to and participate in the world around them. But as always, Musk's long-term goal is somewhat fantastic - a symbiosis of human brain, AI and computer to create 'superhuman cognition'. It will take a long time, though, as Neuralink has taken a few baby steps towards the stuff sci-fi is made of. But those steps have already startled the world and made us wonder about a future when both humans and machines could thought-control each other.