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AlterEgo: This Device Lets You Give Voice Commands Without Saying a Word

Have you ever had any imagination of having a digital assistant like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant in your head? Without you needing to say a single word and without anyone else hearing it would feed you information whenever you required it. Arnav Kapur, a postdoctoral student with the MIT Media Lab, has a similar idea. And he’s already shown it off by building a prototype named AlterEgo.

Alterego by Arnav Kapur and MIT

Arnav Kapur, a postdoctoral student with the MIT Media Lab; Image Source: digitaltrends.com

The current AlterEgo device prototype looks a bit like one of those popstar Britney mics, which is of-course suitable for the people who are too busy to physically hold their phones. It doesn’t actually read the electrical signals from your brain, rather it does let you silently ask questions, and then have the answer fed back to your via bone-conduction technology.

“Throughout the history of personal computing, computers have always been external systems or entities that we interact with: desktops, smartphones, artificial intelligence tools, and even robots. Could we flip this paradigm? Could we augment and extend human abilities and weave the powers of computing and machine intelligence as an intrinsic human cognitive ability”, Kapur told Digital Trends.

Controlling Smart TV with AlterEgo device; Image Source: dezeen.com

For example, if you want to know the weather, Like a surreptitious Siri, AlterEgo could look up this information and let you know the answer in an audio form that only you can hear. You can also relay information to your smart home devices whether you want to switch on your lights or to start up your coffee machine from another room via AlterEgo.

It can also be used for a person with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. One can possibly internally record semantic information and access this at a later time. Or to offer unspoken cues in the form of memory aids. The dictation element would additionally prove a game-changer for people with speech disabilities caused by conditions ranging from strokes, brain injuries and tumors to Parkinson’s disease, ALS, Huntington’s disease, cerebral palsy, and more.

Image result for alter ego device

You can even do necessary price calculations while shopping; Image Source: youtube.com

Kapur explained why this is a revolutionary technology. “There are over 100 muscles involved in speech. Now imagine only using a small fraction of those, and talking to yourself internally without producing any sound, without moving your lips, jaw or facial muscles. The system captures subtle neurological activation of the internal speech systems from the surface of the skin, even though the signal source is inside”, said Kapur to Digital Trends.

According to Kapur, the currency of the human body is the principle of electrical communication. Electrical signal travels through the nerves to instruct a specific muscle to activate in a certain way whenever a person speaks or moves eyes or do whatever, in order to complete the action. Using this theory the device has been made. It consists of 7 small electrodes that attach at various points around the jaw-line and mouth to receive the electrical inputs to the muscles used for speech. It looks similar to a sling for the head, neck and jaw. The user receives auditory output through bone conduction headphones.

The AlterEgo device prototype; Image Source: semanticscholar.org

The biggest question about this device is can it read our minds? Then what about our privacy? The answer is NO, this device cannot read your mind. It only reads signals from your facial and vocal cord muscles when you intentionally  and silently voice words. The system  does not have any direct and physical access to brain activity, and therefore cannot read a  user’s thoughts.

Of-course it will be less disruptive than today’s smartphones! One reason today’s smartphones are disruptive is that they require the user to shift  attention to consult a device. AlterEgo allows the user to access the vast information and services available online in an effortless and less socially disruptive manner, so that the user does not have to pause regular activities to interface with a computer. 

“Our priority is to develop a non-invasive and non-intrusive system that does not render ethics as an afterthought. We are currently refining the technology and working on deployment with full steam”, Kapur said. The AlterEgo device is not yet available commercially, although for his work on it Kapur has picked up a $15,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Featured Image Source: ieee.nitk.ac.in

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