from the world's big
AI is turning thoughts into speech. Should we be concerned?
A new study highlights a fascinating application of AI, though other uses are more troubling.
- Recent research in epilepsy patients has provided a breakthrough in AI-enabled speech recognition technology.
- Soon researchers believe such an application will translate brain waves into speech.
- The moral dangers of AI, especially concerning privacy, continue to be an issue.
Tara Thomas thought her two-year-old daughter was inventing voices, perhaps the result of nightmares spilling into daytime. Thomas's disbelief was suspended when she heard pornography being played through the Nest Cam in her daughter's room, a device that she had been using as a monitor. Someone hacked into the intercom feature in the software.
This is not as isolated incident. Tech companies could make devices more secure, but that would require more participation by the user—aka "friction"—that would result in lower adoption. As marketing expert Geoffrey Moore notes in his bestselling classic, Crossing the Chasm, exposing your product to the early majority requires a "whole product" approach that early adopters do not require. Dominating the market requires as easy an installation process as possible, such as a one-click setup of the Internet of Things.
To accomplish this, Big Tech sacrifices security for convenience. Consumers are playing right along. As the article above notes, Nest offers two-factor authentication, yet customers often ignore it. The ability to unbox an item, plug it in, and immediately tell it what to do is a feature in the eyes of the consumer.
Then suddenly your infant is listening to hardcore porn and you wonder where your privacy went.
Such problems, which will continue to increase until regulations force tech companies to install more serious security measures, are the building blocks of dystopian novels and movies. Unfortunately, they're creating public relations problems for beneficial applications of technology.
Hackers used Google's Nest Cam to Speak to Bay Area Woman's Daughter
Consider AI. There's a race to enter this market, but in the excitement of creating machines smarter than us we have to wonder what sorts of compromises are being made.
One fascinating use case involves a speech-encoding device. The research, published in a recent issue of Nature, details an AI-enabled technology that translates brain patterns into speech. I highly recommend clicking the link above to listen to a 15-second clip of two examples. Perfect? Not quite, but frighteningly accurate.
Thus far, AI has been able to identify and translate monosyllabic words from brain activity. This recent leap forward, powered by electrodes attached to the skulls of participants, is producing entire sentences. While five epilepsy patients read sentences out loud, researchers recorded their neural activity, combining the data with previous studies that focused on how the tongue, lips, jaw, and larynx create sound.
Enter AI, which identified the specific brain signals producing vocal tract movements. Seventy percent of words in the 101 sentences recorded were understandable. While the ability to translate from brain wave to perfect speech is years away, Chethan Pandarinath and Yahia Ali, both at Emory University, co-authored a commentary to the study, noting:
"Ultimately, 'biomimetic' approaches that mirror normal motor function might have a key role in replicating the high-speed, high-accuracy communication typical of natural speech."
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Currently, this technology cannot be applied to people that cannot speak at all, though the authors hope this breakthrough to be an entry point for such an application. The ability to communicate with others would be a boon for such patients' mental health and emotional well-being. Given the rapid increase in this technology over the last decade, researchers are hopeful that such an application is around the corner.
Which is good news in a continually troublesome suite of devices under scrutiny. Telling your monitor to turn on the lights instead of standing up to flick a switch hardly seems worthwhile considering the potential downsides of privacy invasion.
An automated task is not necessarily a better option. Sure, self-driving cars might reduce accidents, but are the ensuing attentional deficits worth the cost? If you never observe where you're going, how do you even know where you are in space when you arrive?
Advocates like to make moral arguments, such as the idea that AI-enabled devices should receive the same ethical considerations as animals. What about the ethics of one particular animal: humans? The mystique of an encyclopedic machine blinds us to the troubles it will wage on Humans 1.0. As with privacy issues on Facebook, billions will likely be entrenched in the technology before we even recognize an issue at hand.
AI has a bright future ahead, as the Nature study highlights. We just need to ensure the consumer fascination with bright and shiny data-collecting toys doesn't overwhelm our moral sensibilities in using these technologies soundly. So far, we're fighting an uphill battle.
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Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.