Do you remember that one episode of every sitcom, where a person is going on a date with someone they desperately want to impress and uses an earpiece with a more suave, more intelligent friend on the other end to figure out what to say to the person? That episode where everything goes horribly wrong on the date and the person wearing the earpiece learns that they should have just been themselves, and if their date didn’t like them back, that was their loss?
Researchers at MIT’s media lab say no, you should always know what to say. However, instead of an actual friend on the line, your new friend is Siri!
Enter AlterEgo, an extremely ostentatious device that you can hook onto half of your face, with some electrodes stuck to your chin, that can transcribe what you’re thinking inside your brain, and feed it back to you in your own ear.
It sounds kind of redundant, seeing as though we already hear our own thoughts in our own heads. People with anxiety, for example, have their own thoughts ricocheting around in there demanding attention all the time. I, for example, heard myself this morning saying an extremely rude thing about a man who gave me the stink eye when my umbrella poked him in the back of his head, sans device. Not my fault it’s raining, sir.
But the researchers are refining the goal of the device: It’s not about talking to yourself through a robot. It’s about talking to the robot. And then having the robot tell you what to do.
“We basically can’t live without our cellphones, our digital devices. But at the moment, the use of those devices is very disruptive,” said Pattie Maes, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT told The Guardian. “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.”
Essentially, instead of that not-actually-awkward moment where you have to look at your phone to find out when Drake’s birthday is, the lab is figuring out how to hook your brain up with AI assistants like Alexa or Siri, and have them tell you that it’s October 24, 1986, while you simultaneously miss whatever the person across from you is saying (though they think you won’t). You can also fact-check what your date is saying, while they’re saying it (à la MTV’s Exposed), a surefire way to get them to hate you. You can totally check out of your conversation and have Alexa read you a story about microplastics in our agriculture, in that soothing voice of hers. Of course, with an enormous device strapped to your face.
A Georgia Tech computing professor told The Guardian that it’s great for noisy environments “like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or even places with a lot of machinery, like a power plant or a printing press,” where you definitely need to talk to Alexa and not your co-workers. Unless the researchers are going to make it so that you can communicate your brain thoughts with each other, which sounds great at first until you realize that you might accidentally think something mean about that co-worker you hate — and they’ll hear it. Or that co-worker who’s creeping on you will think something gross at you, though with the device’s 92 percent transcription accuracy rate, then you can report it to HR.
With that 92 percent transcription rate comes the obvious question of, where are those transcriptions stored? Who gets to keep them? As tech companies grapple with the effects of saving and selling user data, many are choosing to delete Facebook and limit how much information these companies know about them. It’s not likely that technology like AlterEgo would help with that.