MIT’s AlterEgo allows us to communicate with machines without words

It is perhaps known from science fiction films or literature, subvocalization as a means of communication. What sounds very extraordinary, however, is actually something we do every day. It is about the formation of words that we quietly say to ourselves in our heads, for example while we speak or write. But the latest developments also use this method to communicate with computers or smartphones. MIT researchers have now developed the Werable System AlterEgo based on subvocalization, which can measure neuromuscular signals that enable mobile communication without words.

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?” Arnav Kapur, student MIT

The AlterEgo system consists of a portable wearable and a computer system. The electrodes in the device pick up neuromuscular signals in the face and jaw that are triggered by internal verbalisations – the words in our head. The human eye cannot detect these signals. The wearable is combined with a pair of headphones with bone conduction that transmit vibrations through the facial knots to the inner ear and transmit information to the user without distracting him.


AlterEgo: Interfacing with devices through silent speech (Source: MIT Media Lab)


The signals sent by the device are transmitted to an artificial intelligence computer, which uses neural networks to distinguish the different words and form sentences from them. Although the system has so far only been used for simple activities, such as communicating chess moves to the opponent, it has great potential in mobile communication. This is also the intention of the developers, the MIT report continues:

“We basically can’t live without our cellphones, our digital devices, but at the moment, the use of those devices is very disruptive. If I want to look something up that’s relevant to a conversation I’m having, I have to find my phone and type in the passcode and open an app and type in some search keyword, and the whole thing requires that I completely shift attention from my environment and the people that I’m with to the phone itself. 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.” Pattie Maes, Professor MIT

Innovation Profile: AlterEgo

MIT Development AlterEgo can optimize people’s cognitive abilities and draw attention to completely new paths. With a view to the trend movements in gesture control and the optimization of processes using artificial intelligence, AlterEgo is taking a promising path.

MIT AlterEgo - Innovation-Profile

AlterEgo uses a previously unknown means of communication. Subvocalization has always been a means of one-sided communication, since it could not be perceived outside one’s own mind. But this is changing with the MIT wearable. For this reason, the novelty must be set very high. At the same time this unfortunately produces a high uncertainty during use. At first people won’t be quite sure about the accuracy and precession of the information, which also affects the conflict content. But sooner or later, the system, which doesn’t seem too complex in use, will convince people of its advantages.

Conclusion: Together with his student Arnav Kapur, the MIT Media Lab has taken a decisive step towards modern and gesture-controlled communication. If the technology is further expanded and tested with more complex scenarios, it can quickly achieve a breakthrough, even among the general public.


Post Picture: MIT Media Lab

Alexander Pinker
Alexander Pinker
Alexander Pinker is an innovation profiler, future strategist and media expert who helps companies understand the opportunities behind technologies such as artificial intelligence for the next five to ten years. He is the founder of the consulting firm "Alexander Pinker - Innovation Profiling", the innovation marketing agency "innovate! communication" and the news platform "Medialist Innovation". He is also the author of three books and a lecturer at the Technical University of Würzburg-Schweinfurt.

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