AlterEgo - a device that can read people’s thoughts


writer icon Iegor Bakhariev     Lorrie Lejeune, MIT   |   Tech     🕐 20. Apr. 2018

Input devices have come a long way from the first typewriter in the late 16th century to the voice recognition systems in the 21st. The next step for the always-evolving technology is thought recognition.

The future is in our thoughts

So far, there have been several attempts to develop silent speech communication, and while most of them have not reached the public eye, the new platform AlterEgo brings such a device closer to reality. AlterEgo was presented in Tokyo earlier in March. It could easily be a headset in a Star Trek movie. 

How AlterEgo works and what it does 

Arnav Kapur, who is leading this project at MIT Media Lab, explains that silent speaking in the sense of this platform is “conscious effort to say a word, characterised by subtle movements of internal speech organs without actually voicing it.” The process captures signals from the brain to the muscles when the user intentionally vocalises internally. The device later connects such signals with an external computing device. Similar to speech recognition systems, it allows the user to make orders to such devices, but without saying anything.

AlterEgo provides the user with all the advantages of portable devices without actually starting the laptop, moving a finger or opening the mouth. The device allows its user to connect to the internet and request knowledge in real time. The system is able to perform simple tasks, such as switching channels on the TV, controlling a console, or adding the total of purchased items while doing grocery shopping. The main advantage of the platform is that the user can do all these tasks while not being disconnected from the things happening around them.

The results so far are promising 

So far, the system is not completely autonomous and still requires individual training and adjustments. Taking that into account, the tests have shown 92% accuracy. In comparison, Google’s speech recognition system reached its highest 95% mark in 2017. Since AlterEgo is still in the early stages of development, the results will most likely improve as the team is constantly working on refining the responsiveness of the device. 

Expectations from the future

The platform aims to have implications on telecommunications, communication and artificial intelligence systems. One of the possible future applications is the ability to translate internal speaking to another language with the later vocalisation of a given phrase - you think in one language and and a device speaks for you in another. Engagement in AI engines will enable users to access the expertise of an AI in real-time and be part of it. As the company stated, one could “imagine a future possible scenario where doctors might internally and silently consult with a clinical decision making AI agent through AlterEgo in order to improve provision of medical care.”

The question of privacy

The calculations of purchased goods and google searches do not entail a lot of legal problems. It is when such technology starts to influence other people’s lives on a larger scale that the problems arise. In the light of the recent scandals revolving around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, questions regarding privacy come up in every discussion about devices that can store data.

The platform does not have any direct and physical access to brain activity, and therefore cannot read a user's thoughts. As it acts upon the response from the user, the device is using only the information that the user deliberately decides to share. 

According to its creators, the system acts as a digital memory, which means that the user can access the information internally at any time. The company, however, does not clarify for how long and in which way this data will be stored. As soon as the device is connected to the internet, it is difficult provide a reasonable degree of safety about how a user's usage data will be stored and processed.

The second potential pitfall relates to the thoughts that a user says silently inside the head, but that are not actually directed at the device itself. That is when the user talks to themselves without any intention to communicate with the system. If the device acts as a digital memory then logically such thoughts will also be stored in its memory. Therefore, the important issue is whether and how the users will be able to access the stored thoughts and delete their data as required.  

Involvement with AI may raise more legal issues

There already are a few indications that AlterEgo has the potential of being more than just a device for home use. Suggestions that such a platform can potentially be used to assist artificial intelligence systems is one example. From a legal standpoint, should the platform be implemented inside AI systems, the legal problems around AI will affect AlterEgo as well. Looking at how society has faced the problem of self-driving cars and road accidents in the past few months, it is understandable that people are not yet ready to fully embrace the involvement of AI in everyday life. 

Even though AlterEgo does not itself use artificial intelligence, it provides certain interpretations of data. When such an interpretation is implemented within an AI system, legal issues arise. As an AI system cannot be regarded as legal person, the question of finding a liable party in a case of a wrongdoing by an AI device is the problem. Scholars have already provided options of shifting criminal and civil liability to developers, or persons with the duty of care over such systems.

The importance of regulating AI

The legal community have many times emphasised the importance of regulation of robotics in the legal realm. The European Parliament in 2017 issued Civil Law Rules on Robotics where addressed possible legal complications around AI and provided guidelines on how to shape the law in the future. It is hard to deny that the process of computers being incorporated in various aspects of life is an irreversible process. However, once problems of legal liability of robotics are addressed in due course, it will be easier to control the process and not end up dealing with consequences after the fact.

On the one hand AlterEgo is another complication that might create even more legal particularities and loopholes in the use of AI. On the other, if AlterEgo will make it easier for humans to communicate with artificial intelligence systems, this might help with establishing the liable party in a case of wrongdoing and make users safer and more responsible as a result.

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