New MIT device can read your "inside voice", marking the dawn of telepathy tech

Researchers believe it’ll interweave the internet, A.I., and the human brain in a way that will create a “second self.”

Subvocalization is the term used for the narration we all have inside our heads. You’re likely using it right now to read this sentence. MIT scientists have created a device that can pick up the neuromuscular signals created when we subvocalize, which are sent to neural networks that can interpret them.

The device, named AlterEgo, is worn on one side of the face. It looks like a long letter C that loops over the ear and swoops down the jawline. At the other end are two pads. One sticks to an area below the lower lip and the other, below the chin. All told, it looks like a mix between an old sci-fi prop and a medical device. How does it work? When your internal narrator is chattering about this or that, neuromuscular signals are created in the jaw and facial tissue. These are so subtle that they’re undetectable by humans.

The device includes two bone-conduction headphones used to pick up vibrations from the bones of the inner ear, while four electrodes detect neuromuscular signals. These are all sent to a computer equipped with neural networks—a type of A.I. modeled after the human brain. The computer can not only decipher and understand what you’re subvocalizing, it can communicate silently back to you, using what’s known as bone conduction.

The original prototype. (Credit: MIT)

The upside is you can talk with a computer without ever opening your mouth. This could revolutionize how we use computers, mobile devices, or even watch TV. Consider silently clicking through Netflix and picking what you want to watch, without saying a word. This is now possible, according to an MIT promo video.

In one study, researchers interacted with a computer silently to help them solve computational problems. In another, a participant asked a computer the time and got an accurate response. In still another, an AlterEgo user played a game of chess with a colleague. The user registered their opponent’s moves with the computer and got advice from it, all without making a sound.

This is opening up a whole new arena for computer science, what’s being called silent computing. Once we have 5G—just a year or two away by some estimates—a legion of smart devices will hit the market. With AlterEgo, we’ll have a way to “telepathically” communicate to any device we own. In the near future, you might dictate an email, ask Alexa or Siri something, order an item off of Amazon, grab an Uber, or even have a pizza delivered, with just the voice inside your head.

The original device was bulky and cumbersome but over time MIT researchers have gotten it to work smoothly with just four electrodes attached to the face. They believe they can whittle it down to an even more unobtrusive model. Besides personal use, they expect it to be used in high-noise environments, like controlling planes from the tarmac at an airport or on an aircraft carrier. It would also be useful in places like a power plant or a printing press. Special Ops could even use it to organize their unit during an operation, rather than relying on hand gestures.

Another look at AlterEgo's original prototype. (Credit: MIT)

Arnav Kapur is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. He's been developing this technology and said in a press release, “The motivation for this was to build an I.A. device—an intelligence-augmentation device. Our idea was: Could we have a computing platform that’s more internal, that melds human and machine in some ways and that feels like an internal extension of our own cognition?”

Kapur and colleagues recently produced a paper on AlterEgo which they gave to officials at the Association for Computing Machinery’s ACM Intelligent User Interface conference. The idea that subvocalization causes minute internal physical vibrations goes back to the 19th century. Yet, this is the first time it’s being explored for human use. The goal Kapur and colleagues say is to interweave computers, the internet, and A.I. into the human experience, creating what they call a “second self.”

So what’s the downside? Could this tech not also be used to drip propaganda into unsuspecting minds or promulgate fake news? And what safeguards are there to keep advertisers outside of our heads? So far, this is just a working prototype. Tech gurus and legislators alike will need to get in front of this development and come up with some way to make sure such technology isn’t used to corrupt the last free space on Earth, between our ears, while still allowing AlterEgo's capabilities to usher in a paradigm shift, the likes of which humans have perhaps never known.

To see the device for yourself, click here:

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.