Break-through Technology Gives Paralyzed Man the Ability to Speak by Simply Thinking Words

by mcardinal

Justin Bullock, FISM News


Psychokinetic powers may no longer be reserved to super hero comics. UC San Francisco (UCSF) neurosurgeon, Edward Chang, has led a team of researchers for over a decade in an attempt to develop a technology whereby paralyzed people may be able to speak simply by thinking. Their efforts have turned out to be successful as they were able to develop a process whereby a computer system based on complex artificial intelligence and mapping of the human brain was able to assist a man completely paralyzed in speaking simply by thinking of the words he wished to use.

The UCSF research group published their study recounting their efforts in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday. The study is called “BRAVO” which stands for Brain-Computer Interface Restoration of Arm and Voice. BRAVO is built upon past efforts to enable paralyzed persons to speak that involved thinking of specific letters and typing words out one by one. Obviously, this previous system was slow and inefficient but scientists were unsure of how anything better could be achieved as it seemed impossible to decode words based solely on brain waves.

Technology to restore the ability to communicate in paralyzed persons who cannot speak has the potential to improve autonomy and quality of life. An approach that decodes words and sentences directly from the cerebral cortical activity of such patients may represent an advancement over existing methods for assisted communication.

Now, after over ten years of work and research, the UCSF team has achieved a breakthrough by successfully developing a computer system that can analyze and decode up to 50 words in various complex sentence structures. There are still many questions as the system has only been used to afford speech for one person thus far. In addition, while 50 words is impressive on its own, this number hardly encompasses the breadth of any one language.

However, as these are only the preliminary results, the achievement is brilliant. According to the report, the computer system was able to translate at a rate of approximately 18 words per minute with a 93% accuracy. The researchers believe that as the study is refined, these good results will increase exponentially and likely fairly quickly. This new technology has the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the globe and has incredible promise for further development and expansion beyond simply speech.

Dr. Chang said of the study,

With speech, we normally communicate information at a very high rate, up to 150 or 200 words per minute. Going straight to words, as we’re doing here, has great advantages because it’s closer to how we normally speak… To our knowledge, this is the first successful demonstration of direct decoding of full words from the brain activity of someone who is paralyzed and cannot speak. It shows strong promise to restore communication by tapping into the brain’s natural speech machinery.