“Siri, Read My Mind”: A New Device Lets Users Think Commands
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."
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
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 new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
The rise of remote work is a win-win for people with disabilities and employers
Disability advocates see remote work as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike.
Any corporate leader would jump at the opportunity to increase their talent pool of potential employees by 15 percent, with all these new hires belonging to an underrepresented minority. That’s especially true given tight labor markets and CEO desires to increase headcount. Yet, too few leaders realize that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in this country, numbering 50 million.
Some executives may dread the extra investments in accommodating people’s disabilities. Yet, providing full-time remote work could suffice, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank. The authors found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but far surpassed it, to the highest rate in over a decade. “Remote work and a strong labor market are helping [individuals with disabilities] find work,” said Adam Ozemik, who led the research and is chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group.
Disability advocates see this development as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike. For decades before the pandemic, employers had refused requests from workers with disabilities to work remotely, according to Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute. During the pandemic, "we all realized that...many of us could work remotely,” Foley says. “[T]hat was disproportionately positive for people with disabilities."
Charles-Edouard Catherine, director of corporate and government relations for the National Organization on Disability, said that remote-work options had been advocated for many years to accommodate disabilities. “It’s a little frustrating that for decades corporate America was saying it’s too complicated, we’ll lose productivity, and now suddenly it’s like, sure, let’s do it.”
The pandemic opened doors for people with disabilities
Early in the pandemic, employment rates dropped for everyone, including people with disabilities, according to Ozemik’s research. However, these rates recovered quickly. In the second quarter of 2022, people with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, are 3.5 percent more likely to be employed, compared to before the pandemic.
What about people without disabilites? They are still 1.1 percent less likely to be employed.
These numbers suggest that remote work has enabled a substantial number of people with disabilities to find and retain employment.
“We have a last-in, first-out labor market, and [people with disabilities] are often among the last in and the first out,” Olzemik says. However, this dynamic has changed, with adults with disabilities seeing employment rates recover much faster. Now, the question is whether the new trend will endure, Olzemik adds. “And my conclusion is that not only is it a permanent thing, but it’s going to improve.”
Gene Boes, president and chief executive of the Northwest Center, a Seattle organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent, confirms this finding. “The new world we live in has opened the door a little bit more…because there’s just more demand for labor.”
Long COVID disabilities put a premium on remote work
Remote work can help mitigate the impact of long COVID. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 19 percent of those who had COVID developed long COVID. Recent Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million working age Americans suffer from it, with economic costs estimated at $3.7 trillion.
Certainly, many of these so-called long-haulers experience relatively mild symptoms - such as loss of smell - which, while troublesome, are not disabling. But other symptoms are serious enough to be disabilities.
According to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, about a quarter of those with long COVID changed their employment status or working hours. That means long COVID was serious enough to interfere with work for 4 million people. For many, the issue was serious enough to qualify them as disabled.
Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a just-released study that the number of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million. That growth stemmed mainly from long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog, meaning difficulties with concentration or memory, with 1.3 million people reporting an increase in brain fog since mid-2020.
Many had to drop out of the labor force due to long COVID. Yet, about 900,000 people who are newly disabled have managed to continue working. Without remote work, they might have lost these jobs.
For example, a software engineer at one of my client companies has struggled with brain fog related to long COVID. With remote work, this employee can work during the hours when she feels most mentally alert and focused, even if that means short bursts of productivity throughout the day. With flexible scheduling, she can take rests, meditate, or engage in activities that help her regain focus and energy. Without the need to commute to the office, she can save energy and time and reduce stress, which is crucial when dealing with brain fog.
In fact, the author of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study notes that long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, depending on the specifics of the condition. That means the law can require private employers with fifteen or more staff, as well as government agencies, to make reasonable accommodations for those with long COVID. Richard Deitz, the author of this study, writes in the paper that “telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog.”
The current drive to return to the office, led by many C-suite executives, may need to be reconsidered in light of legal and HR considerations. Arlene S. Kanter, director of the disability law and policy program at the Syracuse University College of Law, said that the question should depend on whether people with disabilities can perform their work well at home, as they did during Covid outbreaks. “[T]hen people with disabilities, as a matter of accommodation, shouldn’t be denied that right,” Kanter said.
But companies shouldn’t need to worry about legal regulations. It simply makes dollars and sense to expand their talent pool by 15% of an underrepresented minority. After all, extensive research shows that improving diversity boosts both decision-making and financial performance.
Companies that are offering more flexible work options have already gained significant benefits in terms of diverse hires. In its efforts to adapt to the post-pandemic environment, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer permanent fully remote work options to its entire workforce. And according to Meta chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: people with disabilities, Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, veterans, and women. The numbers bear out these claims: people with disabilities increased from 4.7 to 6.2 percent of Meta’s employees.
Having consulted for 21 companies to help them transition to hybrid work arrangements, I can confirm that Meta’s numbers aren’t a fluke. The more my clients proved willing to offer remote work, the more staff with disabilities they recruited - and retained. That includes employees with mobility challenges. But it also includes employees with less visible disabilities, such as people with long COVID and immunocompromised people who feel reluctant to put themselves at risk of getting COVID by coming into the office.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. Some even say the opposite is true, with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claiming that returning to the office will aid diversity.
What explains this poor executive decision making? Part of the answer comes from a mental blindspot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those in the group of people who seem to look and think like us. Dimon and other executives without disabilities don’t perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group. They thus are blind to the concerns of those with disabilities, which leads to misperceptions such as Dimon’s that returning to the office will aid diversity.
In-group bias is one of many dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. They impact decision making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to relationships.
Another relevant cognitive bias is the empathy gap. This term refers to our difficulty empathizing with those outside of our in-group. The lack of empathy combines with the blindness from the in-group bias, causing executives to ignore the feelings of employees with disabilities and prospective hires.
Omission bias also plays a role. This dangerous judgment error causes us to perceive failure to act as less problematic than acting. Consequently, executives perceive a failure to support the needs of those with disabilities as a minor matter.
The failure to empower people with disabilities through remote work options will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies. Not only are limiting their talent pool by 15 percent, they’re harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, by violating the ADA, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
By contrast, companies like Meta - and my clients - that offer remote work opportunities are seizing a competitive advantage by recruiting these underrepresented candidates. They’re lowering costs of labor while increasing diversity. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility that people with disabilities need.