“Mind-Reading” Computer Could Help Thousands like Stephen Hawking

Repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth, or so goes the saying. We’ve all heard it said a thousand times that if you give a monkey a typewriter and enough time it can re-create the works of Shakespeare. Well, that’s officially true.

Researchers at Stanford University have just conducted an experiment using a brain-signal-sensing computer – call it a mind-reader if you will, but it’s not the same – that can interpret brain signals into physical movements in monkeys.

How Does it Work?

Using electrodes directly implanted into the brains of two Rhesus monkeys, the researchers were able to pick up brain signals based on eye movement across a grid. The monkeys would run their eyes over the grid and, by simply thinking about moving a cursor, could move it up and down or left to right across the grid until the cursor matched the letter they wanted to type.

This might sound like an excruciatingly slow way to type, but the monkeys did manage to go up to 12.9 words per minute, or roughly one word every five seconds. That’s not too bad considering the fact that humans, on average, can only type about 38 words per minute with their hands. The monkeys did it with their brain signals!

How Can it Help Humans?

The applications of this technology in human life are vast. The system used by the researchers at Stanford say that this is not the first version. They earlier created another computer that was tested on paraplegic patients, but it was “slow and imprecise.”

The new software, however, was able to accurately track the movement of the monkeys’ eyes and translate the resulting brain signals into cursor movement.

Famed theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking uses a similar software, but since his eyelids droop, he uses his cheek muscles to control the letters he wants to type. Another piece of software (from SwiftKey, an app that you can download on iOS and Android smartphones) provides the predictive typing that speeds up the process. The voice is provided by yet another piece of software from Dennis Klatt, one of the pioneers of text-to-speech algorithms.

The new system from Stanford has the potential to help thousands of people. According to one of the research scientists who worked on the project, the computer they used “enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation.”

If combined with predictive typing and a speech synthesizer, this could replicate the system that Stephen Hawking uses and make it widely available to anyone incapable of natural speech or muscular movement.

This critical experiment may one day enable thousands of silent sufferers to express themselves in one of humanity’s most unique forms of communication – speech.

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