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Scrabbling for Augmentation

By Stephen Rainey


Around a decade ago, Facebook users were widely playing a game called ‘Scrabulous’ with one another. It was pretty close to Scrabble, effectively, leading to a few legal issues.

Alongside Scrabulous, the popularity of Scrabble-assistance websites grew. Looking over the shoulders of work colleagues, you could often spy a Scrabulous window, as well as one for too. The strange phenomenon of easy, online Scrabulous cheating seemed pervasive for a time.

The strangeness of this can hardly be overstated. Friends would be routinely trying to pretend to one another that they were superior wordsmiths, by each deploying algorithmic anagram solvers. The ‘players’ themselves would do nothing but input data to the automatic solvers. As Charlie Brooker reported back in 2007,

“We’d rendered ourselves obsolete. It was 100% uncensored computer-on-computer action, with two meat puppets pulling the levers, fooling no one but themselves.”

Back to the present, and online Scrabble appears to have lost its sheen (or lustre, patina, or polish). But in a possible near future, I wonder if some similar issues could arise.

Technologies that can decode covert speech are a growing field of research. Devices like the AlterEgo are getting coverage in popular media. Related research aims to have therapeutic interventions.

In the US, Frank Guenther has been a tremendous force in the area of neural control of speech. His team’s work has made massive progress in the area of decoding neural signals for speech technologies.

BrainCom is a multidisciplinary European project developing neuroprosthetics for speech. Neuroprosthetics for speech include technologies that use intracortical electrodes designed to pick out linguistically relevant neural signals such that the speech that they represent can be externalised artificially. This raises the possibility of realising speech for those who may have lost their ability to communicate through, for example, disease or injury.

AlterEgo presents itself differently from these therapeutic applications:

“AlterEgo seeks to augment human intelligence and make computing, the Internet, and machine intelligence a natural extension of the user’s own cognition by enabling a silent, discreet, and seamless conversation between person and machine. The wearable system reads electrical impulses from the surface of the skin in the lower face and neck that occur when a user is internally vocalizing words or phrases – without actual speech, voice, or discernible movements.”

When thinking about saying something, but not yet saying it, miniscule electrical currents are realised in the articulatory muscles that would be used were thought speech to be verbalised. This can be detected, and used as a control mechanism for a range of applications. Unlike some therapeutic cases, neural implants are not required.

One thing imaginable is that technology like this could be used to boost social currency. With a huge information resource secretly available to me, I might suddenly find myself much more confident in dealing with novel circumstances.

If I can’t think of the right word, a scrabblesolver-style synonym-finder might rescue me from a frustrating tip-of-the-tongue feeling. If I’m not sure how to handle a particular social scenario, why shouldn’t I invisibly consult a few web resources for advice. In a pub quiz, I can ditch my phone as required by the quizmaster, but that needn’t stop me Googling at will. Would I be too pleased with myself to admit this to my fellow-quizzers?

With my silent-speech activated device on board, I might end up like the Scrabulous player from 2007. After all, with a wealth of extra-personal resources available to me in terms of knowledge, vocabulary, information, and all covertly accessible, I might start to think, “Where’s the harm in augmenting this conversation?”

At the very least this should give us pause to consider carefully what we mean when think of ‘augmentation’. In Scrabble, the point of the game is sort of lost if it becomes an anagram competition mediated by some tool or other. A pub quiz is anaesthetised if it becomes a mere fact-checking encounter, run through the internet. Social capital has little value if it’s based in simply checking what someone else would do in general. If, instead of being good at Scrabble, or pub quizzes, or being a good listener, we replace these skills with ‘being good at checking references’, something is lost.

If we fast-forward to a near future where a lot of might be silently ‘augmenting’ ourselves and our interactions, we run the risk of inadvertently recreating the Charlie Brooker Scrabulous eventuality, with algorithmic action bouncing off algorithmic action, we users redundantly fooling no-one but ourselves?

It’s not necessarily a hellish possibility, but it might be a pretty drab one.

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