It’s no secret that digital communication rules our lives—from the hours we spend on Facebook to the number of times we check our phones for text messages, we spend a significant portion of our day using technology to stay in touch with our friends, families, and co-workers. But what does the future hold for communication technology?
Telepathic communication has been in sci-fi movies for years, but have you ever thought about what it would be like to actually use it?
Dave Evans has. The former chief futurist at Cisco, Evans stated in a 2011 interview that “we will create Internet-based telepathy,” and predicted that both hardware and software would soon be integrated into “wetware”—the human body. Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it?
Not as far as you might think. In a fascinating (or horrifying, depending on how you feel about this sort of thing) experiment, Dr. Rajesh Rao and members of his lab at the University of Washington have created a rudimentary “telepathic” system that connects the brains of two people.
Imagine a very simple two-player video game. On a screen, there’s a city, a cannon, and a pirate ship. The pirate ship occasionally fires rockets toward the city—if they hit the city, the players lose. They can, however, use the cannon to shoot down the rockets. There are also occasional passenger planes, which should not be shot down.
Only the first player can see the screen, and only the second player can control the cannon. All the first player has to do is say “fire” when a rocket comes into the firing path of the cannon, and not say anything at all when a plane goes by.
That’s what Rao and his colleagues created—except there’s no verbal communication. The sender is hooked up to an EEG sensor, which detects brain activity in certain areas; the receiver is hooked up to a TMS device, which stimulates the brain. To make a long neuroscientific story short, the sender imagines moving his right hand, and this signal is transmitted through the EEG sensor, between two networked computers, and into the TMS machine, causing the receiver’s hand to twitch and hit the “fire” button.
So how accurate is it? After four practice sessions, the two participants were performing at 100%—they shot down all of the rockets and let all of the planes through.
While we’re a ways off from seeing this technology used at a consumer level, it’s easy to imagine what we might do with it. Sending texts directly to friends’ smart glasses just by thinking a few words. Transmitting sensory information so someone can see or hear (or even feel) what you’re experiencing. Operating a computer with no input devices. The possibilities are limitless.
While we aren’t quite at the level of Star Trek or Demolition Man, we’ve come quite a long way with projecting 3-dimensional images. One of the leaders in this field is a company called Holoxica, which is currently working on advanced holography for use in engineering, science, and medical imaging. In a recent TED talk, founder Javid Kahn discussed the progression of holographic technology from simple objects, like a digital clock, to more complex ones, like a multi-layered human anatomical model. (He also stressed that true holography requires light diffusion, which is not what you get when you project an image onto a transparent screen—sorry, Tupac fans.)
It’s quite possible that responsive surfaces like the ones being developed at the MIT media labs will combine with holography to revolutionize the workplace of tomorrow, with colleagues working together from around the world in a virtual environment that closely resembles an office. Think about it: you could manipulate a three-dimensional virtual object in real-time, even touch a representation of the surface of it, and then print it using 3D printing. Telecommuting could look a lot different in the next 20 years or so.
If you’ve used Gmail’s priority inbox, you’ve already had a glimpse at how artificial intelligence can help us when it comes to communication. We’re inundated with hundreds or thousands of messages a day from a number of sources: e-mail, IM, phone call, text, and others. What if our computers were capable of filtering and sorting all of this information effectively?
Even more interestingly, what if we could take advantage of AI to respond to these communications more efficiently? Eventually, all communication could be run through two filters of AI, creating very economical and efficient communications. A number of app developers are already working toward a system like this, including the crew behind Mailstrom. Although Mailstrom doesn’t use an AI algorithm, it aims to learn a lot about your e-mail behavior and allow you to take advantage of what it learns.
For example, if you receive a number of e-mails from different people that are all about the same thing, you could use Mailstrom to respond to all of them with a single e-mail, even though they’re from different e-mail threads. And, of course, it also helps you delete a huge number of e-mails at the same time, getting you one step closer to the elusive inbox zero.
The world is getting closer to effective AI-assisted communication every day, and it won’t be surprising if the way you communicate looks a lot different 5 years from now.
If you read our article on advanced computing technologies that DARPA has been researching, you might remember MADCAT, a system for automatically classifying and translating documents. DARPA is also working on a system called Broad Operational Language Translation, or BOLT, a system that will someday instantaneously translate foreign languages into English.
Outside of the highly secretive DARPA, there are companies working on similar translation systems, such as the Compadre system by SpeechGear. There are a number of components in Compadre, but the most interesting one, Interact, is a great example of the potential of instant translation. To use Interact, you just say the words you want translated—your device translates the words into another language and speaks them aloud.
With technology like this, the phrase “language barrier” may be a thing of the past.
Scientists and computer engineers around the world are working on some very exciting communication technologies that could quickly revolutionize the way we talk to, work with, and relate to each other. Michael Wesch said that “When media changes, human relationships change,” and it looks like we’re at a perfect point in history to see just how true that is.
Which communication technologies are you most excited for? What other technologies have you seen that you’re interested in? How will the technologies above shape the world? Share your thoughts below!