In early April, MIT research assistant Arnav Kapur, 24, uploaded a short video on YouTube. The clip showed him moving around campus in various settings wearing a white plastic contraption wrapped around the right side of his face.
As he walked by rows of bikes parked next to mounds of melting snow, his lips were closed while his inner thoughts flashed as words on the screen. “Time?” it read. A male voice responded, “10:35 a.m.” In the next scene, Kapur was shopping in a bodega. The prices of the things he tossed into his shopping cart — toilet paper, an Italian wrap, canned peaches — appeared on the screen. “Total $10.07,” the male voice responded. In the final scene, Kapur moved a cursor around a video console, ostensibly with his mind.
Kapur came to MIT’s Media Lab from New Delhi in 2016 to build wearable devices that seamlessly integrate technology into our 24/7 experience. No more reaching for cellphones. No more staring at screens. No more eyes down. No more tuning out to plug in.
Improbably, AlterEgo, the soundless, voiceless, earbud-less device he’d been working on for the last two years had become adept enough at reading his thoughts that he could use it to order an Uber without saying a word.
“We wanted to capture interactions that are as close to thinking in your head as possible.”
In its current incarnation, Kapur’s device — developed in collaboration with his brother Shreyas (an MIT undergrad), a few fellow grad students in the Fluid Interfaces department, and lead A.I. guru Professor Pattie Maes — is a 3D-printed wearable device outfitted with electromagnetic sensors that hugs one side of your jaw and, via Bluetooth, connects you with your what Maes calls your computer brain — the Internet’s massive web of information most of us access via smartphones some 80 times a day.
It’s radical for the simple reason that it is noninvasive — no implants required — and can process silent human communication with an exceptionally high degree of accuracy. Eventually, Kapur promises, this contraption will be practically invisible to other people.