Saturday, March 20, 2004
You talkin' to me?
The technique involves small sensors on the neck and powerful pattern recognition software. These sensors detect nerve impulses sent to the muscles responsible for generating speech (I guess that when you think the word the nerve impulse is strong enough to be detected, but not strong enough to cause any noticeable twitch in the muscles). The pattern recognition software then correlates these impulses with simple words or commands. So far, the vocabulary is very small -- less than 20 words. But they've been able to use that simple vocabulary for tasks as complex as browsing the internet.
There are clearly a lot of uses for this kind of technology, even if the vocabulary remains limited. NASA talks about using it to allow astronauts to more efficiently control remote devices. It occurs to me that this technology could really improve the lives of the severely disabled. Commercially, well, there will be a lot of very cool gadgets. And, of course, the technology raises all sorts of philosophical issues as well.
For example, this development sheds light on our concept of action. Most people think that there is a significant difference between thinking something and saying it. So if I'm standing in line for the premiere of Hellboy and think "Jerk!" when you cut in front of me, nobody would say that I've insulted you. On the other hand, if I was decked out in NASA gear that routed my thoughts through a loudspeaker, we probably would say that I'd insulted you. We might even say that if I didn't know about the NASA gear. In the first case I didn't perform an action, in the second I did, and in the third I may have.
One thing that's interesting here is how easily our concept adapts to the new circumstances. We are easily able to accommodate the new facts which move some thoughts from the realm of the private into the realm of the public. The complexities of the third kind of case aren't different from the sorts of complexities we're used to dealing with (imagine that you called your boss a jerk when you were sure that she was out of earshot). At the same time, the sensitivity of the concept to changes in circumstances dramatically illustrates that whether or not I have performed an action isn't a fact about me in isolation. Instead, its a fact about a complex social situation of which I am a part. That is, its a fact about my relations to other people.