Breakthrough Device Can Take Your Thoughts and Turn Them into Words

Our world is shaped and defined by language. However, our thoughts are a mishmash of images, sensations, and words that work together to create a never-ending internal dialog.

Sometimes these thoughts manifest as internal verbalizations or, to put it another way, we talk to ourselves in our own heads. Twenty-four-year-old Arnav Kapur and his team at MIT have developed a new wearable device that can translate these internal verbalizations into words. When connected to speech-enabled technology, it allows the user to speak out loud.

“The motivation for this was to build an IA device — an intelligence-augmentation device,” Kapur told MIT. “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?”

This technology may seem exciting for those of us with the ability to speak, but for those who’ve had their voice taken by a disease such as cerebral palsy or an accident, it could be life-changing.

The device, known as AlterEgo, is a system of sensors that detect minuscule neuromuscular signals sent by the brain to the vocal cords and muscles of the throat and tongue. When we speak to ourselves, these signals are sent out even if we don’t verbalize the words.

The signals are filtered through an AI that transcribes them into words. The user can hear the words through a speaker that conducts through the skull and ear so they are silent to everyone else. For those who can’t speak, the words can be read aloud by speech-enabled technology.

According to Kapur’s research, the device is 92% accurate at deciphering the signals into words.

“A lot of people with all sorts of speech pathologies are deprived of the ability to communicate with other people,” Kapur said according to Smithsonian. “This could restore the ability to speak for people who can’t.”

The device also has countless uses outside of helping those with disabilities.

AlterEgo could be connected to a recording device that records thoughts for later playback. It can also be used for soldiers in a combat zone to silently communicate with one another. AlterEgo could also connect people across the globe in real-time via their thoughts.

“In a way, it gives you perfect memory,” Kapur says. “You can talk to a smarter version of yourself inside yourself.”

“I think that they’re a little underselling what I think is a real potential for the work,” says Thad Starner, a professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, told MIT. “You can imagine all these situations where you have a high-noise environment, like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or even places with a lot of machinery, like a power plant or a printing press.”

The device may one day allow us to access smartphone technology but with far less distraction.

“We basically can’t live without our cellphones, our digital devices. But at the moment, the use of those devices is very disruptive,” says Pattie Maes, a professor of media arts and sciences and Kapur’s thesis advisor. “So, my students and I have for a very long time been experimenting with new form factors and new types of experience that enable people to still benefit from all the wonderful knowledge and services that these devices give us, but do it in a way that lets them remain in the present.”

The device recently won the “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for consumer technology which came with a $15,000 prize.

For now, the students are looking for ways to expand the device’s vocabulary which can be built upon through continual use. “We’re in the middle of collecting data, and the results look nice,” Kapur says. “I think we’ll achieve full conversation some day.”

Photo credit: MIT.

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