The process between thought and action is not often one we think about, but an intriguing gadget could fast track that process by reading our thoughts and acting on them without us having it. The device has been developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by a team of researchers.
Back in April, a promotional video was uploaded to YouTube to demonstrate the possibilities of the device. The video featured MIT research assistant Arnav Kapur walking around the campus with a white piece of plastic attached to the right side of his face. Words appeared on the screen to represent Kapur’s internal thoughts; showing how the device could register and process these thoughts. For example, when Kapur thought, “Time?”, a voice replied, “10:35 a.m”. Kapur originally commenced his time as a researcher at MIT after moving from New Delhi in 2016. He arrived at MIT to build wearable devices that would be able to incorporate technology into our everyday lives (at all hours of the day).
The gadget is known as AlterEgo and is 3D-printed with electromagnetic sensors. The device also connects to Bluetooth to in order to access the internet for data collection. It has allegedly become so effective at reading Kapur’s mind that it is able to place a request for an Uber ride without the need for verbal or typed instruction. He explained that the aim of the product is to get as close to capturing exact thoughts as is possible. It is astounding such a device can obtain thoughts from a person without it being implanted within the brain itself, but eventually Kapur and his fellow researchers plan to make the device entirely unnoticeable.
Understandably, many people will find this merging of human and technology quite alarming, but Kapur embraces this synergy, and has said, “I think the future of human society is about us collaborating with machines”.
Public fear would likely revolve around the loss of human control and the potential for hacking and privacy violations. If a gadget is able to read the human mind, shouldn’t humans be able to read each other’s minds? Of course, the sensor technology gives the device an upper hand in mind reading but considering this device was developed by humans, humans could use the same technology to access our inner thoughts. Hacking mobile phones and computers is a common and widely understood issue, but the potential for the mind to be ‘hacked’ via an IoT mind reading device such as the AlterEgo is a truly terrifying one.
The intention behind AlterEgo is clearly no more than a desire to aid the communication between human and AI (allowing people to truly harness the power of the internet), but, as with any new technology, it is at risk of falling into the wrong possession. My mind wanders to Doctor Who when considering the dystopian possibilities of mind-reading technology- I can picture a scene in which hoards of people wander in unison with earpieces controlling them. The particular episode I am referring to is called ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, which is incredibly relevant to Kapur’s plans for AlterEgo and his perception of man and machine combining. He describes the use of mind-reading and our integration with AI as, “how we’re going to live our lives”. He sees it as an inevitability and clearly plans to embrace it.
Although technology resembling AlterEgo may cross privacy lines in the future, Kapur and his MIT colleagues have ensured that the device is user-control based. The device will only identify thoughts when you want it to. The idea is that the user must want to communicate with the ‘computer brain’ or AI in order to interact with it. Professor Pattie Maes, an A.I. expert worked with Kapur and his team, and both are very aware of the ethical considerations necessary. Although calling the device’s ability ‘mind-reading’ is a way of explaining its function, according to Kapur, the device can’t really read your mind and he assures that there is no possibility of it being able to do so in the future. Without our thoughts being in direct communication with the device (requiring our choice and consent), AlterEgo is not able to access our thoughts.
The gadget was not created to shock the public by reading our mind without us knowing, it was purely designed to be convenient for its user. For example, to interact with your virtual assistant bot you must verbally communicate with it, but the MIT creation takes away the necessity to verbalise commands, questions or thoughts. When in a location that requires silence, i.e., a library or lecture hall, you can still interact with the device without causing a disturbance.
It is not difficult to see the potential for this device and the value it could have in several years. AlterEgo could find extensive popularity amongst large tech companies already embracing AI and its application in business, such as Amazon. For the time being Kapur and his creation remain at MIT, but who knows where this invention will end up?