How Wearable AI Will Amplify Human Intelligence


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Imagine that your team is meeting to decide whether to continue an expensive marketing campaign. After a few minutes, it becomes clear that nobody has the metrics on-hand to make the decision. You chime in with a solution and ask Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa to back you up with information: “Alexa, how many users did we convert to customers last month with Campaign A?” and Alexa responds with the answer. You just amplified your team’s intelligence with AI. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Intelligence amplification is the use of technology to augment human intelligence. And a paradigm shift is on the horizon, where new devices will offer less intrusive, more intuitive ways to amplify our intelligence.

Hearables, or wireless in-ear computational earpieces, are an example of intelligence amplification devices that have been adopted recently and rapidly. An example is Apple’s AirPods, which are smart earbuds that connect to Apple devices and integrate with Siri via voice commands. Apple has also filed a patent for earbuds equipped with biometric sensors that could record data such as a user’s temperature, heart rate, and movement. Similarly, Google’s Pixel Buds give users direct access to the Google Assistant and its powerful knowledge graph. Google Assistant seamlessly connects users to information stored in Google platforms, like email and calendar management. Google Assistant also provides users with highly-personalized recommendations, helps automate personal communication, and offloads monotonous tasks like setting timers, managing lists, and controlling IoT devices.

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While technology on the market today affords humans a multitude of capabilities unavailable to them even just a decade ago, there is still an opportunity for improvement and refinement. The power and prevalence of smartphones allows humans to easily amplify intelligence, but the use of these devices is often obtrusive. It’s all too common to see people in public completely absorbed with the little screens in their hands rather than their surroundings, or to have social situations interrupted by someone pulling out their smartphone to check a notification or complete a search. Hearables, along with other voice-enabled devices, allow users to seek information and complete tasks without a screen interface, but they are inherently less discreet than smartphones. Users must speak their questions and commands aloud, which may not be desirable or possible in certain situations. This lack of discretion diminishes the impact of the voice-enabled intelligence amplifying interfaces as it limits the contexts in which they can be used.

The need for an intelligence-amplifying device that is less obtrusive than a smartphone and more discreet than a voice interface is clear. Many technologists and entrepreneurs are working to create the next revolutionary intelligence-amplifying device that will solve the problems of its predecessors while giving users seamless access to advanced AI systems.

The Next Generation of Intelligence Amplification

We’re quickly moving toward a world where AI will more seamlessly help to power our human intelligence and interactions.

Consider AlterEgo, a project originating from the MIT Media Lab — an intelligence amplification device that uses silent speech recognition, also known as internal articulation, to measure the electrical signals the brain sends to the internal speech organs. AlterEgo is a non-invasive device that’s worn over the ear and along the jawline. The signals it measures are part of the voluntary nervous system, meaning users must intentionally think of speaking words to trigger the device — a feature that sets it apart from other brain-computer interfaces (BCI) that are capable of receiving signals directly from the brain. The AlterEgo device translates these silent user signals into commands to control other systems, such as IoT devices, and query information, say from a Google search. A user controls the device without opening their mouth, and without any externally observable movements. They simply have to think about the words they would have asked Siri or a smart speaker out loud. Information is then relayed back to the user through audio. (AlterEgo uses bone-conduction audio to respond back to users, which completes the discreet information loop silently.) The entire interaction is completely internal to the user — almost like speaking to oneself. AlterEgo’s creators hope that this silent information loop will make people’s interactions with the technology both unobtrusive and discreet.

Arnav Kapur, a PhD student at MIT who leads the AlterEgo project, described their vision in a recent interview: “Speaking is not private, but you are in total control of it. Thinking is completely private, but sometimes you’re not in control of all your thoughts. We’re trying to make something that’s right in between those two ends of the spectrum, but that brings the best of both worlds.”

It’s clear that Kapur and the rest of the AlterEgo team are driven to give users a positive experience by balancing the AI’s intimate access to the user with discretion, and the user’s ultimate control of their sensitive data. Kapur adds, “We thought a lot about what the ethical issues are with this technology being used in the wild; the user is in control of the technology at all times and the technology is not intrusive. Privacy is not an afterthought.”

Augmented reality devices represent another interesting foray into modern intelligence amplification. Google Glass, smart eyewear that failed in the consumer market, is now being used in enterprise and industrial applications. For example, employers such as GE are implementing smart-eyewear technology to increase the efficiency of their warehouse and manufacturing workers. Technicians at GE were able to use guided instructions overlayed on their field of view to increase their productivity and reduce errors while servicing or repairing manufacturing equipment.

There is also an opportunity to leverage the user data that these new devices capture to create highly-personalized experiences. Pattie Maes, MIT professor and advisor to AlterEgo, says, “Systems that have an awareness of the user — their [mental and emotional] state, their intentions — will ultimately be less intrusive and more useful, because they can customize the information that is being provided to the situation at hand.” Much of the industry is already thinking about how the insights extrapolated by AI will be used by the companies building intelligence amplifying devices. Futurist Amy Webb warns of large companies like Amazon being able to wield deeper influence over their customers, such as selling medicine to customers they believe are ill or depressed.

Preparing for the Next Era of Personal Computing

There is an immense opportunity for business leaders to capitalize on intelligence-amplifying technology. Each new device further reduces the barriers between an individual’s and an organization’s knowledge, and provides a new platform on which businesses can build applications to connect with customers, employees, and partners. Intelligence-amplifying devices will be the primary means by which individuals interact with the world, so business leaders and stakeholders should plan for how their organization will embrace the coming changes in personal computing.

Designing and developing experiences for intelligence-amplifying devices will require new technical skills and more collaboration across disciplines. Data scientists, researchers, designers, and engineers will all need to understand the technology powering intelligence-amplifying devices in order to create innovative and useful applications that appropriately leverage AI.

As consumers and employees integrate more of their lives into the digital space with new intelligence-amplifying devices, organizations must consider and address issues of data transparency, privacy, and autonomy. These themes are already at the forefront of user awareness and concern in the wake of the many high-profile data breaches over the past few years. Consumers are rightfully wary of handing over their data to big businesses who may use it to manipulate consumers or sell it to other businesses with that intention. As more personal data is captured with these devices, and as AI is able to extrapolate more details about consumers, everyone is more vulnerable. Businesses should focus on building trust with consumers by being transparent with their data practices and prioritizing privacy and autonomy when developing and implementing more personalized, intelligence-amplifying technologies.

Many businesses are already augmenting their workforce with AI in the areas of communication, sales, support, and decision-making. Some experts believe that intelligence amplification could be an antidote to automation-related job loss by making augmented humans indispensable. Because intelligence amplification builds upon existing human intelligence and all that it encompasses, it can be seen as more powerful than AI alone. It’s time for business leaders and stakeholders to consider how to successfully embrace this new era of personal computing.

How Wearable AI Will Amplify Human Intelligence

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