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MIT is making a device that can ‘hear’ the words you say silently

Arnav Kapur and the AlterEgo device.

Lorrie Lejeune/MIT

Students from MIT have created a prototype device, dubbed AlterEgo, that can recognize the words you mouth when silently talking to yourself—and then take action based on what it thinks you’re saying.

Arnav Kapur, a master’s student at the MIT Media Lab—a division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that focuses on the intersection of people and technology— and author of the paper, stresses that the device doesn’t read thoughts or the random, stray words that just happen to pass through your mind. “You’re completely silent, but talking to yourself,” he says. “It’s neither thinking nor speaking. It’s a sweet spot in between, which is voluntary but also private. We capture that.”

The prototype system, as it exists right now, looks like a white headset a telemarketer might wear. But instead of a mic hovering in front of their lips, it sticks to the face and neck, where a handful of electrodes pick up the miniscule electrical signals generated by the subtle internal muscle motions that occur when you silently talk to yourself. The device connects via Bluetooth to a computer, which then communicates with a server that interprets the signals to determine what words the wearer is articulating.

It’s very much in the prototype stage, though it represents a fascinating departure from the norm. We most often interact with our devices by touching them—typing on a smartphone, pressing on an app, or double tapping the side of Apple’s AirPods to pause or play music. Or, we talk to our gadgets or smart speakers by engaging with digital helpers like Siri, Alexa, or the Google Assistant. Those services require more from you than speaking silently to yourself. Put another way: this type of tech is like having a simpler version of Siri hear your silent whispers.

The goal of all this? To further “combine humans and computers,” Kapur says. The more tightly we interact with computers, the more we can take advantage of their strengths—like quickly getting help with a math problem or a translation—without having to look up from your work and click, tap, or type.

Or a user could simply change the channel on the Roku—those remotes are so small and easily lost!—in total silence. The AlterEgo also seems promising for people with disabilities, or paralysis. But Kapur says they haven’t been able to study that application yet.

To be sure, the tech is still in its early stages, so each app only has the capacity to learn about 20 different words. The system can’t understand every word a person says—just the ones it has been taught. Talking to yourself deliberately, but not saying anything out loud, is an easy practice to learn, Kapur says. When training someone to use it, they start by asking them to read a passage aloud. “After that, we ask them to not voice the words” as they read, he says. “It’s more comfortable than speaking out loud.”

To build the system, Kapur used a common artificial intelligence tool called a neural network, which can learn from data inputs. They trained the neural network to recognize how different electrical signals correspond to the different words a person could say to themselves.

While it’s easy to see military applications of such a device—a professor from Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, Thad Starner, said in a statement on MIT’s website that he could envision “special ops” using such a device—Kapur says that’s not their intended goal for the system.

“This is more about how we could bridge the gap between computers and humans,” he says. The ideal scenario is one in which people can augment themselves with the smarts of an artificial intelligence system smoothly and in real time.

The next step: work on the device’s form, so it’s a bit “more invisible.” It’s all about that seamless integration—so ideally future versions won’t look like a taped-on telemarketer’s headset.

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Obesity ‘to kill more women than smoking in 25 years’

Obesity is to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable cancer in British women, according to a new paper.

If trends continue, obesity-related cancers could account for 23,000 cases by 2035, compared to 25,000 caused by smoking in the same year, said the report by Cancer Research UK.

By 2043 obesity is likely to cause more cancer cases than smoking.

The conclusions were based on projections, and researchers stressed that there remain many uncertainties in predicting what will cause cancers in the future.

As fewer people smoke and obesity rates increase, however, the gap will continue to close.

With higher rates of obesity and fewer smokers among women than men, the narrowing is happening faster among women.

Blog post: How we estimated when obesity might catch smoking as the top cause of cancer: https://t.co/UmTgnmth6A pic.twitter.com/7EyEF7dnMU

— Cancer Research UK (@CR_UK) 24 September 2018

The charity is now launching a campaign to raise awareness of the link between cancer and obesity, and to encourage a healthier lifestyle.

It said only around one in seven people in the UK are aware of the link between obesity and cancer.

"The decline in smoking is a cause for celebration. It shows how decades of effort to raise awareness about the health risks plus strong political action including taxation, removing tobacco marketing and a ban on smoking in indoor public places, have paid off," said professor Linda Bauld, a prevention expert at the charity.

"But, just as there is still more to do to support people to quit smoking, we also need to act now to halt the tide of weight-related cancers and ensure this projection never becomes a reality."

Measures suggested following the research including a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm and restrictions on promotions of unhealthy food and drink.

"Obesity is the new smoking, one of the greatest public health challenges of our generation," a spokesperson for NHS England said.

"Expanding waistlines also mean a heavier burden for taxpayers which is why, as we draw up a long term plan for the NHS, we are exploring all options to help patients to help themselves and help the NHS."

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In releasing the report, Cancer Research says it hopes to prevent the projected rise in obesity-related cancers becoming a reality – by taking cues from success in stopping smoking.

In the first half of the 20th century it is believed that up to 80% of men smoked, but today around 17% of men are smokers.

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AI soldiers: Army trials battlefield scanning technology

Artificial intelligence which scans battlefields for hidden attackers has been successfully trialled by the British Army.

The UK-created technology, dubbed SAPIENT, flagged dangers to soldiers as sensors scanned a mock urban battlefield in Montreal, Canada.

The Ministry of Defence says the technology will free up other soldiers who man live CCTV-type feeds for enemy movement, and will reduce human error.

The system was tested alongside other experimental military technology, including robotic exoskeleton suits, night vision, and surveillance systems.

Soldiers trial UK-created artificial intelligence technology that scans battlefields to detect hidden attackers
Image: MoD hopes SAPIENT will 'give us the edge in future battles'

Defence Minister Stuart Andrew said: "This British system can act as autonomous eyes in the urban battlefield.

"This technology can scan streets for enemy movements so troops can be ready for combat with quicker, more reliable information on attackers hiding around the corner.

"Investing millions in advanced technology like this will give us the edge in future battles."

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The army's three-week trial was the latest in a series of Contested Urban Environment experiments, which involve soldiers from the Five Eyes allied nations of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

Soldiers tested the latest military technology from several nations. The UK is set to hold a similar exercise in 2020.

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3D gun pioneer charged with sexual assault on teen

By Russell Hope, news reporter

Cody Wilson, the US businessman whose company supplies 3D printed guns, has been charged with allegedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

Wilson, who created blueprints for untraceable 3D-printed guns and posted them online, appeared in court in Houston after being deported from Taiwan, where he had fled after being told police were investigating allegations he had sex with the minor.

He was arrested by US marshals when he landed at the city's airport on Saturday and held in custody on a $150,000 (£114,740) bond.

Cody Wilson disguised himself when he left Taiwan
Image: Cody Wilson disguised himself when he left Taiwan

Police accuse Wilson, who they say met the girl on SugarDaddyMeet.com, of meeting her in the car park of a coffee shop in Austin, before buying her coffee.

Investigators say he then took her to a hotel in the north of the city, where he allegedly assaulted her before paying her $500 (£383) in cash.

The age of consent in Texas is 17.

Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed company, holds a 3D printed gun, called the 'Liberator', in his factory in Austin, Texas on August 1, 2018. - The US 'crypto-anarchist' who caused panic this week by publishing online blueprints for 3D-printed firearms said Wednesday that whatever the outcome of a legal battle, he has already succeeded in his political goal of spreading the designs far and wide
Image: Cody Wilson holding a 3D printed gun at his factory in Austin, Texas
Mr Wilson can print plastic guns which are untraceable
Image: Mr Wilson can print plastic guns which are untraceable

The girl told investigators that after having sex, he dropped her off at a Whataburger restaurant.

Wilson, a self-styled "crypto-anarchist", was arrested on Friday at a hotel in Taiwan by local police.

He covered his face with a scarf, hoodie and sunglasses as he left Taiwan, but was wearing none of those as he was led away by US marshals in Houston following his arrest.

Last month a federal court banned Wilson from posting the designs for the 3D printed weapons online free of charge.

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He has since been selling them for whatever his customers are prepared to pay, via his website.

Authorities worry the firearms are easy to conceal and untraceable as there's no requirement for them to have serial numbers, which are a crucial part of any investigation of a crime in which shots are fired.

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Computer help fraudsters steal £21m from UK victims

More than £21m has been stolen from over 22,000 people in the UK by fraudsters offering fake help with computer issues, according to new figures.

Action Fraud, the specialist nationwide reporting point for cyber crime run by City of London police, has launched a campaign to educate people about Computer Software Service fraud.

It can start with either a phone call, an email or a pop-up message appearing on your computer, telling you there's something wrong with it or with your internet connection, and claiming that it needs to be fixed.

The scammers will then demand payment to fix the issue, or they will trick victims into installing software on their computer which could allow the criminals to access personal and financial details.

Action Fraud stated it received 22,609 reports of Computer Software Service fraud with a total of £21,365,360 being lost over the last financial year.

According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, men and women are equally susceptible to being targeted by the fraudsters, and victims are on average 63 years old.

The bureau's figures show that people living in London and Bristol are most likely to fall victim too.

Fraud became the most common type of crime in England and Wales in 2016 because of the increasing profits to be made through cyber fraud and computer misuse.

Protection advice from Action Fraud and City of London Police will be issued on their social media channels to help people learn how to protect themselves.

The forces are also encouraging businesses to warn customers that they will never be contacted in that way if any issues are detected.

City of London Police's Lara Xenoudakis said: "These fraudsters prey on vulnerable victims, doing everything they can to convince them there is something wrong with their computer.

"They use this as a way to gain immediate and in some cases multiple payments from the victim.

"During this campaign week, we are asking people to do everything they can to protect themselves from this type of fraud and stop fraudsters from thinking that this is an easy way to make money from unsuspecting victims."

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Other officers are also contributing to the campaign.

WE CAN ALL LEND A HAND 🖐🏼 TO STOP FRAUD!
Fraudsters want to get into the homes /lives of people in our communities.
Start by telling just 2 friends & family. #Tell2#HangUp on fraud and consider a call blocking device. pic.twitter.com/u9q10LDr8d

— Tony Murray – National Protect Officer (@CityPoliceTell2) September 21, 2018

City of London Police's protect officer Tony Murray has recorded a comedic video to inform people about fraud and is offering to spend the night in a "haunted" cell if his tweet receives 200 retweets.

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White House ‘prepares to investigate tech giants’

By Alexander J Martin, technology reporter

The White House has drafted an executive order for Donald Trump which would instruct federal agencies to investigate the business practices of technology giants including Facebook and Google.

Without naming specific companies, a draft copy of the order, obtained by Bloomberg, instructs antitrust (competition law) authorities to "thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws".

Other federal agencies are instructed to develop recommendations on how to "protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias" within a month by the order, which has not been finalised.

It is currently in its preliminary stages and federal agencies will consult on its contents before it goes to the president.

Mr Trump publicly accused Google of rigging its search results against him last month, apparently based on claims broadcast on the Lou Dobbs Tonight programme, a show on Fox.

#StopTheBias pic.twitter.com/xqz599iQZw

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018

He also claimed in a tweet that the web giant promoted Barack Obama's addresses but not his own.

Google rejected the allegations.

Detecting and establishing bias in complicated algorithms is a growing problem in the field of computer science, with artificial intelligence being used to make determinations issues such as the likelihood of prisoners to reoffend and loan interest rates.

Biased algorithms could have especially significant financial repercussions when they control the results of commercial platforms as dominant as Google Search.

The bias that Mr Trump has accused technology companies of remains political, despite research by independent parties not supporting his accusations.

However, the executive order could also allow federal agencies to investigate whether the companies' products are skewed to support themselves in an anti-competitive manner.

If signed, the order could indicate a significant clash between the Trump administration and the US tech giants, which have risen largely free of regulatory interference since the dot-com crash in the late 1990s.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said Google 'abused it's market dominance' 1:49
Video: 2017: Google 'systematically abused its position' – EU

Historically, the US has taken a back seat to the EU when it comes to investigating the web giants on competition grounds, with the Competition Commissioner recently fining Google €4.34bn (£3.8bn) for abusing its control of the Android operating system.

"Because of their critical role in American society, it is essential that American citizens are protected from anticompetitive acts by dominant online platforms," the order states, according to Bloomberg.

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The order notes that "consumer harm", a key measure in antitrust investigations, could be assessed "through the exercise of bias" – which is likely to raise concerns about Mr Trump attempting to influence political judgements.

The draft order states that any actions the investigators take should be "consistent with other laws" – apparently to reference concerns about conflict between the order and the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of political opinion.

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