Sometime in the near future, we won't need to type on a smartphone or computer to silently communicate our thoughts to others.
"We're moving as fast as possible to get the technology right, to get the ethics right, to get everything right."
In fact, the devices themselves will quietly understand our intentions and express them to other people. We won't even need to move our mouths.
That "sometime in the near future" is now.
At the recent TED Conference, MIT student and TED Fellow Arnav Kapur was onstage with a colleague doing the first live public demo of his new technology. He was showing how you can communicate with a computer using signals from your brain. The usually cool, erudite audience seemed a little uncomfortable.
"If you look at the history of computing, we've always treated computers as external devices that compute and act on our behalf," Kapur said. "What I want to do is I want to weave computing, AI and Internet as part of us."
His colleague started up a device called AlterEgo. Thin like a sticker, AlterEgo picks up signals in the mouth cavity. It recognizes the intended speech and processes it through the built-in AI. The device then gives feedback to the user directly through bone conduction: It vibrates your inner ear drum and gives you a response meshing with your normal hearing.
Onstage, the assistant quietly thought of a question: "What is the weather in Vancouver?" Seconds later, AlterEgo told him in his ear. "It's 50 degrees and rainy here in Vancouver," the assistant announced.
AlterEgo essentially gives you a built-in Siri.
"We don't have a deadline [to go to market], but we're moving as fast as possible to get the technology right, to get the ethics right, to get everything right," Kapur told me after the talk. "We're developing it both as a general purpose computer interface and [in specific instances] like on the clinical side or even in people's homes."
Nearly-telepathic communication actually makes sense now. About ten years ago, the Apple iPhone replaced the ubiquitous cell phone keyboard with a blank touchscreen. A few years later, Google Glass put computer screens into a simple lens. More recently, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana have dropped the screen and gone straight for voice control. Now those voices are getting closer to our minds and may even become indistinguishable in the future.
"We knew the voice market was growing, like with getting map locations, and audio is the next frontier of user interfaces," says Dr. Rupal Patel, Founder and CEO of VocalID. The startup literally gives voices to the voiceless, particularly people unable to speak because of illness or other circumstances.
"We start with [our database of] human voices, then train our deep learning technology to learn the pattern of speech… We mix voices together from our voice bank, so it's not just Damon's voice, but three or five voices. They are different enough to blend it into a voice that does not exist today – kind of like a face morph."
The VocalID customer then has a voice as unique as he or she is, mixed together like a Sauvignon blend. It is a surrogate voice for those of us who cannot speak, just as much as AlterEgo is a surrogate companion for our brains.
"I'm very skeptical keyboards or voice-based communication will be replaced any time soon."
Voice equality will become increasingly important as Siri, Alexa and voice-based interfaces become the dominant communication method.
It may feel odd to view your voice as a privilege, but as the world becomes more voice-activated, there will be a wider gap between the speakers and the voiceless. Picture going shopping without access to the Internet or trying to eat healthily when your neighborhood is a food desert. And suffering from vocal difficulties is more common than you might think. In fact, according to government statistics, around 7.5 million people in the U.S. have trouble using their voices.
While voice communication appears to be here to stay, at least for now, a more radical shift to mind-controlled communication is not necessarily inevitable. Tech futurist Wagner James Au, for one, is dubious.
"I'm very skeptical keyboards or voice-based communication will be replaced any time soon. Generation Z has grown up with smartphones and games like Fortnite, so I don't see them quickly switching to a new form factor. It's still unclear if even head-mounted AR/VR displays will see mass adoption, and mind-reading devices are a far greater physical imposition on the user."
How adopters use the newest brain impulse-reading, voice-altering technology is a much more complicated discussion. This spring, a video showed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stammering and slurring her words at a press conference. The problem is that it didn't really happen: the video was manufactured and heavily altered from the original source material.
So-called deepfake videos use computer algorithms to capture the visual and vocal cues of an individual, and then the creator can manipulate it to say whatever it wants. Deepfakes have already created false narratives in the political and media systems – and these are only videos. Newer tech is making the barrier between tech and our brains, if not our entire identity, even thinner.
"Last year," says Patel of VocalID, "we did penetration testing with our voices on banks that use voice control – and our generation 4 system is even tricky for you and me to identify the difference (between real and fake). As a forward-thinking company, we want to prevent risk early on by watermarking voices, creating a detector of false voices, and so on." She adds, "The line will become more blurred over time."
Onstage at TED, Kapur reassured the audience about who would be in the driver's seat. "This is why we designed the system to deliberately record from the peripheral nervous system, which is why the control in all situations resides with the user."
And, like many creators, he quickly shifted back to the possibilities. "What could the implications of something like this be? Imagine perfectly memorizing things, where you perfectly record information that you silently speak, and then hear them later when you want to, internally searching for information, crunching numbers at speeds computers do, silently texting other people."
"The potential," he concluded, "could be far-reaching."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”