Arnav Kapur
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Ever since computers were invented, we've been trying to make them smarter and more powerful. From the abacus, to room-sized machines, to desktops, to computers in our pockets. And are now designing artificial intelligence to automate tasks that would require human intelligence. If you look at the history of computing, we've always treated computers as external devices that compute and act on our behalf. What I want to do is I want to weave computing, AI and internet as part of us. As part of human cognition, freeing us to interact with the world around us. Integrate human and machine intelligence right inside our own bodies to augment us, instead of diminishing us or replacing us.

Could we combine what people do best, such as creative and intuitive thinking, with what computers do best, such as processing information and perfectly memorizing stuff? Could this whole be better than the sum of its parts?

We have a device that could make that possible. It's called AlterEgo, and it's a wearable device that gives you the experience of a conversational AI that lives inside your head, that you could talk to in likeness to talking to yourself internally. We have a new prototype that we're showing here, for the first time at TED, and here's how it works.

Normally, when we speak, the brain sends neurosignals through the nerves to your internal speech systems, to activate them and your vocal cords to produce speech. One of the most complex cognitive and motor tasks that we do as human beings. Now, imagine talking to yourself without vocalizing, without moving your mouth, without moving your jaw, but by simply articulating those words internally. Thereby very subtly engaging your internal speech systems, such as your tongue and back of your palate. When that happens, the brain sends extremely weak signals to these internal speech systems.

AlterEgo has sensors, embedded in a thin plastic, flexible and transparent device that sits on your neck just like a sticker. These sensors pick up on these internal signals sourced deep within the mouth cavity, right from the surface of the skin. An AI program running in the background then tries to figure out what the user's trying to say. It then feeds back an answer to the user by means of bone conduction, audio conducted through the skull into the user's inner ear, that the user hears, overlaid on top of the user's natural hearing of the environment, without blocking it.

The combination of all these parts, the input, the output and the AI, gives a net subjective experience of an interface inside your head that you could talk to in likeness to talking to yourself. Just to be very clear, the device does not record or read your thoughts. It records deliberate information that you want to communicate through deliberate engagement of your internal speech systems. People don't want to be read, they want to write. Which 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.

I want to stop here for a second and show you a live demo. What I'm going to do is, I'm going to ask Eric a question. And he's going to search for that information without vocalizing, without typing, without moving his fingers, without moving his mouth. Simply by internally asking that question. The AI will then figure out the answer and feed it back to Eric, through audio, through the device. While you see a laptop in front of him, he's not using it. Everything lives on the device. All he needs is that sticker device to interface with the AI and the internet. So, Eric, what's the weather in Vancouver like, right now? What you see on the screen are the words that Eric is speaking to himself right now. This is happening in real time.

Eric: It's 50 degrees and rainy here in Vancouver.

Arnav Kapur: What happened is that the AI sent the answer through audio, through the device, back to Eric.

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. Suddenly becoming multilingual, so that you internally speak in one language, and hear the translation in your head in another. The potential could be far-reaching.

There are millions of people around the world who struggle with using natural speech. People with conditions such as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, stroke and oral cancer, amongst many other conditions. For them, communicating is a painstakingly slow and tiring process.

This is Doug. Doug was diagnosed with ALS about 12 years ago and has since lost the ability to speak. Today, he uses an on-screen keyboard where he types in individual letters using his head movements. And it takes several minutes to communicate a single sentence. So we went to Doug and asked him what were the first words he'd like to use or say, using our system. Perhaps a greeting, like, "Hello, how are you?" Or indicate that he needed help with something. What Doug said that he wanted to use our system for is to reboot the old system he had, because that old system kept on crashing.


We never could have predicted that. I'm going to show you a short clip of Doug using our system for the first time.

(Voice) Reboot computer.

AK: What you just saw there was Doug communicating or speaking in real time for the first time since he lost the ability to speak. There are millions of people who might be able to communicate in real time like Doug, with other people, with their friends and with their families. My hope is to be able to help them express their thoughts and ideas.

I believe computing, AI and the internet would disappear into us as extensions of our cognition, instead of being external entities or adversaries, amplifying human ingenuity, giving us unimaginable abilities and unlocking our true potential. And perhaps even freeing us to becoming better at being human.

Thank you so much.


Shoham Arad: Come over here. OK. I want to ask you a couple of questions, they're going to clear the stage. I feel like this is amazing, it's innovative, it's creepy, it's terrifying. Can you tell us what I think ... I think there are some uncomfortable feelings around this. Tell us, is this reading your thoughts, will it in five years, is there a weaponized version of this, what does it look like?

AK: So our first design principle, before we started working on this, was to not render ethics as an afterthought. So we wanted to bake ethics right into the design. We flipped the design. Instead of reading from the brain directly, we're reading from the voluntary nervous system that you deliberately have to engage to communicate with the device, while still bringing the benefits of a thinking or a thought device. The best of both worlds in a way.

SA: OK, I think people are going to have a lot more questions for you. Also, you said that it's a sticker. So right now it sits just right here? Is that the final iteration, what the final design you hope looks like?

AK: Our goal is for the technology to disappear completely.

SA: What does that mean?

AK: If you're wearing it, I shouldn't be able to see it. You don't want technology on your face, you want it in the background, to augment you in the background. So we have a sticker version that conforms to the skin, that looks like the skin, but we're trying to make an even smaller version that would sit right here.

SA: OK. I feel like if anyone has any questions they want to ask Arnav, he'll be here all week. OK, thank you so much, Arnav.

AK: Thanks, Shoham.