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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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Dark mode is easier on your eyes—and battery

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Why user experience designers are going gray.

Dark mode is an increasingly popular accessibility option, from Twitter to Reddit to MacOS. But achieving the perfect grayscale site isn’t easy.

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The curious case of the electric carving knife

The Black + Decker ComfortGrip 9-inch electric knife.

Black + Decker

Electric knives are cheesy antiques, right? You have to plug them in, they’re noisy, and seem ridiculous when compared to a traditional knife, especially if you own a quality tool that you keep sharp. They have an old-school vibe, but not good old-school. More like: an unnecessary gadget that Mad Men-type ad execs would hawk.

But a good electric knife can do one thing really well: it will cut roast meat cleanly, leaving a tidy little strip of skin on top of each slice. In other words—they are silly, but if you’re ever going to use one, it’s Thanksgiving and other occasions like it. The moments when you want things to be pretty.

Last year, staffers at Cook’s Illustrated magazine—the magazine of the well-respected America’s Test Kitchen—tried out four electric knives. The results surprised the publication’s editor-in-chief.

“I was super skeptical when they started that testing,” says Dan Souza, editor of Cook’s Illustrated. “It’s just kind of this relic from the 50s and 60s.” One problem is the noise; they can be “as loud as a lawnmower.”

“I would say that they’re not taken especially seriously,” he adds.

But one model stood out for them: the Black + Decker ComfortGrip 9-inch electric knife, which is $20. An electric knife has two side-by-side blades that move back and forth quickly, meaning that you don’t need to saw manually—you just push down. It looks like a power tool you’d find in a wood shop, not a kitchen cabinet.

“You can get a very clean cut that way,” he says. “That winning one did do a really nice job of keeping a perfect little strip of crispy skin on every single slice.”

To get the most out of an electric knife, first separate the chunks of breast meat from the cooked bird—a task for which Souza recommends just using a regular chef's knife. Then, place meat on a cutting board, skin up, and use the electric knife to cut it across the grain.

electric knife

The knife breaks down into multiple pieces.

Black + Decker

“And that’s really where I think the electric knife excels, with no tearing of the skin, and really, really clean slices,” Souza says. The tool would also come in handy with a cooked piece of roast beef, or pork roast.

A good one can help people out who don’t frequently cook, or carve, a turkey. “It does solve a potentially pretty big problem for home cooks,” Souza says. “And there’s the added pressure of you’re wanting it to be this gorgeous thing on Thanksgiving.”

David Bruno, a chef and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, agrees that an electric knife can come in handy when slicing a bird. “For someone who may have a drawer full of knives, what I generally find—unless they’re really a knife aficionado—most of those knives are really dull,” he says. A dull knife will rip the skin, but in this context, the electric knife could produce nice, tidy slices.

“In general, we don’t use a lot of them,” he adds. But they do have a niche. “People that are making food to display for competing, that really need an accurate slice, have been known to use these knives before.” Some competitive barbecue cookers use them to cut their meats—but it’s a controversial topic that has spawned countless arguments.

Of course, you don’t need one. “I still really believe that if you have a super sharp knife, and you take really great care of it, you can absolutely carve a turkey with great success,” Souza says.

Not sold on the idea of an electric knife? That’s fine. The test kitchen at Saveur—one of Popular Science’s sister publications—rounded up some blades to consider for your kitchen. You don’t even need to plug them in. One of the knives on their list is a carver that’s only $7. Want more choices? At the higher end is this $340 tool from Town Cutler, and in the middle is a $140 option. Bon appetit.

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NASA reveals Mars 2020 rover landing site

After a five-year search NASA has chosen the Jezero Crater as the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission.

The crater was selected from more than 60 candidate locations which were studied, analysed and debated by the mission team and planetary science community.

The US space agency's mission to place a next-generation rover on the Martian surface is scheduled to launch in July 2020.

It will examine the planet for signs covering whether it was ever habitable and analyse the surface and beneath for ancient microbial life.

NASA has announced the rover will land in the Jezero crater. Pic: NASA
Image: NASA has announced the rover will land in the Jezero Crater. Pic: NASA

"The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen.

"Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionise how we think about Mars and its ability to harbour life," added Mr Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency's science mission directorate.

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The Jezero Crater is located on the western edge of a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator.

Known as Isidis Planitia, the impact basin presents some of the oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer, according to NASA.

The planet Mars taken by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth
Image: NASA has selected one of the oldest impact basins on Mars to land the rover

"Mission scientists believe the 28-mile-wide (45km) crater was once home to an ancient river delta and is a prime location to have preserved ancient organic molecules and evidence of microbial life.

"The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive," said Ken Farley.

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"But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies," added Mr Farley, a project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Jezero Crater's selection is still "dependent upon extensive analyses and verification testing" according to NASA, and a final report will be given to NASA HQ towards the end of 2019.

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Last week in tech: Underground tunnels, sad Facebook execs, and Black Friday prep

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Black Friday is almost here. Read this in your tent while you wait for the doorbusters.

Catch up on your tech news while you're waiting for cheap Tupperware.

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Russian agencies fight over private US satellites

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and its cash-strapped space agency Roscosmos are in conflict over a $1bn contract to launch private satellites on behalf of a US company.

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