New sensors can hear the voice inside your head

Last spring at SXSW I got to chat with Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, about her vision for a world where sensors help humans become more authentic. Her idea is new augmented reality devices (glasses, earbuds) don’t only give us vision and sound inputs, but they can output our heartbeat, focus of attention, even emotional state. Sensors extracting human data will lead to good things: Anticipation of a disease you don’t realize you have; warnings to 911 that you’re about to be mugged from the skin-crawl you feel as someone approaches behind; conversational clarity in loud restaurants as an earpiece amplifies sound just for the one you seek.

Which brings us to this news: 24-year-old Arnav Kapur has invented a sensor device that can extract what you are thinking if you just focus on language. Apparently when humans compose speech in our heads, tiny neuromuscular signals are fired away even if we don’t utter a sound. Kapur’s “AlterEgo” device, which fits around the head and jaw like a white iPhone tentacle, now helps people with speech pathologies. Play the tech forward a few years, and you can foresee remote sensors in someone else’s AR glasses scanning your brain for your mental conversation.

But … there is a spectrum of helpful-confusing-um-no-thanks in all this. For example, what if you have crush on someone and sensors reveal your glowing emotion amid a business conversation? The digital virtual valentine falls out of your chest onto the boardroom table. Oh, how awkward.

The mind spins at a world where no one could withhold anything. Humans couldn’t lie or dissemble. Romance would lose its frisson as the lengthy process of courtship is compressed to a little red-green score (“she is 78% in love with you with 10% platonic ambivalence and 12% annoyance”). New business pitches would require companies to send in only emissaries armed with true love. “Team, we’re meeting with BMW next week. OK, who has a crush on the CMO?” The subterfuges of social humans would be laid bare.

HR consultants will have a field day.

Poppy Crum hopefully proposes this future will be one of authenticity, where humans like dolphins can see inside each other and so deception and its offspring hostility, war and hate will fade away. Sensors will ease communication, monitor health, cocoon your home in IoT personalization, even maintain “the Internet of broken things” to keep electricity flowing and water pure, especially helpful in poor areas or developing nations with limited infrastructure.

But … if I engage with you just a little, and you can unfold all of my dreams, is that a good thing?

Details at Smithsonian Magazine: