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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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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