Giving a Voice to Thoughts

A new technology tool from MIT enables silent communication between human and computer. Ray Schroeder looks ahead to potential implications for teaching and learning.

May 23, 2018
 

MIT, once again, has taken a huge step toward further embedding technology into our lives.  In this case, it is giving voice to thoughts, speech to the speechless and opening the door to telepathy. 

The technology, named “AlterEgo,” generates digital signals to unvoiced thoughts. One wears a tiny, spare, flexible frame that contains between 4 and 16 tiny electrodes to pick up non-vocalized speech – such as when one reads text or deliberately thinks articulated thoughts. It transforms these brain pulses into digital transmissions.  

AlterEgo allows humans – without speaking or typing – to communicate with computers.  Or, as the MIT Media Lab puts it: “AlterEgo is a closed-loop, non-invasive, wearable system that allows humans to converse in high-bandwidth natural language with machines, artificial intelligence assistants, services, and other people without any voice -- without opening their mouth, and without externally observable movements -- simply by vocalizing internally.”

This technology leapfrogs the keyboard, the mouse and most all other input devices to allow a person to merely think – voice internally without speaking – a thought or a question, and the computer can respond through a bone conduction device. The concept has been around for a century or more. It creates vibrations rather than direct sound waves that are transferred by direct contact with the skin over your jawbone, which in turn conducts vibration to your auditory receptors.

We have seen this technology marketed for some time as modestly priced headphones that do not cover your ear, leaving the ear canal open for open air sound vibrations.   

By combining the two technologies – the transmission of non-vocalized speech to a computer and the response transmitted from the computer to silent bone conduction -- a kind of silent communication between human and computer takes place. It would seem to be a trivial task (add “from there”? dl) to output the computer reception from one person to another human and go through the same AlterEgo capture to transmit that person’s response, thereby synthesizing human telepathy!

Is this real?  What does it look like?  MIT has shared an example on YouTube.

What are the potential implications for teaching and learning? As with most technologies, there are both the good aspects and the challenging. To name a few:

Good

  • This can provide assistive technology to those with disabilities related to speech.
  • It can also provide help by mainstreaming bone conduction headphone technologies that are already on the market – offering a quieter, more accessible auditory input.
  • AlterEgo may provide learning opportunities in locations where other technologies just don’t work – such as where keyboards and touchscreens are not practical input devices.
  • And, it harnesses the precision, infinite patience and effectiveness of computer interaction in, for example, working with students.

Concerns

  • Current pedagogies that allow for simple multiple choice, short answer, or related assessments could be circumvented without any obvious detection. One can argue that this may be good rather than a concern, since it may lend fuel to the movement toward more authentic assessments.
  • Taken to the ultimate conclusion, this may put an end to keyboarding and other such physical capture of thoughts in digital format or on paper. Again, this may not be all bad, but could be met with the same resistance as the calculator in the classroom.
  • AlterEgo is one more significant step in merging humans with computers. Perhaps this is inevitable. And, perhaps it is necessary if we humans are to maintain control of the machine.
  • Oh yes, and one might consider the possibility that such technology enables the computer and any networks connected to the computer or monitoring the Bluetooth transmission to eavesdrop on our thoughts. 

The pieces are there; the connections have been made. In this case, it may be only a year or two from market. 

Are you prepared to leverage this technology in teaching and learning?

Bio

Ray Schroeder is associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and founding director of the National Council for Online Education. He tracks developments in massive open online courses, emerging trends, technologies, pedagogies and practices on the "Continuing and Online Education Update" blog by UPCEA.

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