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."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.