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Scientists successfully translated a severely paralyzed man's brainwaves into speech

We can't read one another's minds, but our machines can.

By Cassidy Ward
Chip implanted in human brain

In the 1999 fantasy comedy, Being John Malkovich, a small group of people discover and exploit a doorway leading into the mind of the titular John Malkovich. Rather than give the man the privacy he so rightly deserves, they instead sell tickets for 15-minute stints from behind someone else’s eyes. You almost can’t fault them. It would be so tantalizing. How many times have you wondered what it might be like to get inside someone else’s head and capture what they experience, what they think about, without it ever leaving their lips?

Scientists have been working for decades to create systems capable of allowing for more robust communication among folks with physical limitations. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking was well-known for his uncommon but effective speaking apparatus, which translated the movement of a facial muscle into speech.

In that way, one word or character at a time, Hawking gave lectures, held court with fans and colleagues, and wrote entire books exploring the nature of the universe. It’s almost impossible to quantify the benefit of speech aids and yet, Hawking was only able to communicate in his later life because he maintained some level of controllable muscle motion in his face. Had that not been the case, Hawking might have been totally locked inside his own body, and the world deprived of his contributions.

It’s those folks, the ones who have no way of communicating with the world outside their own bodies, who scientists from the University of California hope to serve. According to a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers have created a system capable of translating internal speech signals into external sounds, with no facial movement required.

That paper, along with two others from researchers at UC and Caltech, were presented at a recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, with the focus on translating brain activity into sounds or actions. Their goal is to capture speech from your mind when it’s still nothing more than a thought inside your head.

Over recent years, the field of neuroprostheses has grown significantly and researchers have had various successes capturing brain activity and translating it accurately. In this study, researchers implanted electrodes into the brain of a single patient living with severe paralysis. Those electrodes capture brain activity and translate the signals they receive into words or sentences and deliver the results through a text. Taking the process a single step further and reading that text out with a computer-generated voice is a relatively simple task. All at once, folks who are locked inside of their bodies might have a way of communicating verbally through the use of what looks increasingly like telepathic technology.

Pancho hasn’t been able to speak for roughly 15 years, following a devastating car accident and a stroke. In the experiment, researchers had Pancho use code words to represent letters, and then think of those code words to spell out words. Pancho used the word “alpha” to represent the letter A, and would spell out questions or comments by thinking of the correct sequence of code words. When he was finished spelling, he would attempt to squeeze his hand. The computer would recognize motion-related brain activity and discontinue decoding.

This method of communication allowed Pancho to communicate at a rate of about seven words per minute. That’s a considerable improvement over the five words per minute he usually achieves using his current speech device, which requires moving a cursor. That said, it’s also way lower than the 150 words per minute the average person can achieve with verbal communication. That average spoken word rate is the target scientists are aiming for.

By learning to recognize specific words from electrical patterns in the brain, a computer could learn to transcribe your thoughts just as quickly as you have them. It will also weaken the barrier between what’s inside our heads and the rest of the world, allowing for more streamlined interactions between technology and our very minds. Maybe someday soon we might actually take a quick weekend trip to the quiet winter landscape of John Malkovich’s psyche.