3 things direct from the future

Edition 92

Once every 2 weeks I will deliver “3 things direct from the future”. A 2 minute read that will always give you:

  • one thing that can help,
  • one thing to be wary of, and
  • one thing to amaze.

If this sounds interesting to you then please subscribe.


1. One thing that helps

Brain -> Computer Interface

How can severely paralyzed people communicate with others more effectively? Two teams from California have worked with a patient to create a sophisticated digital avatar that can help. The goal is to allow paralyzed patients to communicate rapidly using a brain-computer interface (BCI).

The device is implanted into the patient’s brain and it looks for brainwaves that signal what the patient wants to say. Rather than working with whole words, it uses phonemes which are distinct sounds that make up a word. For example, when a patient wants to make the sound of ‘p’ or ‘b’, electrodes responsible for moving the lips together would be activated. It then combines and interprets such signals into words. An animation software uses AI to interpret facial expressions and projects these to a digital avatar that can speak for the patient.

Brain implant type mentally

The implant enables the patient to talk between 60 to 80 words a minute. It currently has an error rate of 24% for a 125,000 word vocabulary which, whilst still impressive, would be difficult to use. There’s still some refinement to do but this is proof that such a device is possible.

“Our goal is to restore a full, embodied way of communicating, which is the most natural way for us to talk with others,” says Edward Chang, chair of neurological surgery at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).


2. One to be wary of

AI Can Hear You

AI can hear you… by the keystrokes of your keyboard. This AI-based approach can use the microphone on one of the devices around you (your phone sitting next to your keyboard anyone?) to listen to the sounds you make as you type at your keyboard and accurately predict what you’re typing. Researchers from the Universities of London, Durham and Surrey have tested this approach on a MacBook Pro and the results are concerning.

They recorded an audio sample of each key on the MacBook Pro’s keyboard by pressing each key 25 times. These audio samples were then converted into spectrograms which were used to train the AI to differentiate between the sound of each key. Once trained, the AI can listen in on new audio recordings of the same keyboard and predict what was typed. On the MacBook Pro’s keyboard, it achieved between 93% to 95% accuracy! If you work in a quiet office your boss might soon be able to monitor exactly what you are typing at all times. Better stop messaging your friends about what a horrible boss they are!

How can you protect yourself? Learn to to touch type as apparently this reduces accuracy to 40%. Or just do what I do and have music blaring in the office whenever you are working!


3. One to amaze

Robotic Sculptor

Robotor 1l robot carve marble sculptures

In centuries past, Michelangelo worked with Italy’s Carrara marble to produce timeless sculptures that we all admire. Now, in the same hills where artisans used to labour on their masterpieces, a robotic sculptor called 1L by company Robotor is sculpting marble at superhuman speeds. Is this advancement of art or the beginning of the end?

The 1L Robotic sculptor is a 13-foot zinc alloy robotic sculptor that works on its ‘masterpieces’ 24 hours a day. Its cutting surfaces are coated with diamond powder to enable it to cut easily and flawlessly. But the most important thing remains the input imagined by the artist. The artist uses software to transform their idea into a 3D image that is then fed to the robotic sculptor. What is interesting is that Michelangelo hired teams of labourers to help him execute his idea. Is this any different?

“It saves a lot of waste. If there’s something that is wrong, or you don’t like it, you can just go back…The cool thing about this technology is that we allow the artists to think without any limits,” says Giacomo Massari, owner of Robotor. That is a good sales pitch from him but what do the art purists think?

“We risk forgetting how to work with our hands,” scupltor Lorenzo Calcinai said. “I hope that a certain knowhow and knowledge will always remain, although the more we go forward, the harder it will be to preserve it.”


Have a great week.

Daniel J McKinnon

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