Science 3 min read

Will Neural Implants Replace Text-to-Speech Devices?

Beatriz Gascon J |

Beatriz Gascon J |

An experimental device has successfully translated signals from the brain into text, and has the potential to help individuals with speech disorders communicate more easily.

Will “improvements” to Text-to-Speech technology make telepathy texting a reality, or create an entirely new set of hurdles?

Paralysis and certain physical disabilities make vocal communication difficult for some people. Currently, devices that translate eye movement and facial expressions into text allow individuals like Steven Hawking to express themselves using text-to-speech technology.

Different conditions that result in speech disorders naturally affect individuals in different ways, and current text-to-speech technology is not one size fits all. For example, technologies that rely on eye readers are not a viable option for individuals with dropping eyelids resulting from facial paralysis.

Mind Reading

Stanford University researchers led by Bio-X scientists Krishna Shenoy and Paul Nuyujukian have developed a multi-electrode neural implant capable of interpreting data and transcribing thoughts as text.

The implant reads signals from the region of the brain that normally directs hand and arm movements and then uses an algorithm to create letter sections.

“The monkeys were able to read and transcribe entire articles and literary passages without physically touching a keyboard.”

Ape test subjects were able to type 12 words per minute- something that researchers say demonstrates that the implant and its algorithm are more precise than current text-to-speech technologies.

Look Doc, no Hands

The experiment outfitted each monkey with an implant and then trained the animal to look at letters that appeared on a screen.

Meanwhile, the implant monitored the monkey’s brain activity and transcribed the letters that the monkeys saw.

Therefore, the implant allowed the monkeys to read and transcribe entire articles and literary passages without physically touching a keyboard.

“While being able to type without a keyboard seems like it would speed up the process, this improvement actually has the potential to slow the process down.”

Although this method has not yet been tested on human beings, the new implant shows potential to replace current text-to-speech technology with an easier, more efficient models.

Improvements or Impediments?

The same features that seem like improvements could prove to create a new set of impediments.

While being able to telepathy text without a keyboard seems like it would speed up the process, this improvement actually has the potential to slow the process down.

A person needs to time to formulate a thought or think of how to spell a word- a fact that would slow typing speed in relation to “cognitive load“, or the lag we experience while we think and mentally spell check.

Examples of other factors that could affect cognitive load times are ambient distractions like noise, lights and the presence of other people.

Furthermore, like conventional typing speeds, the fact that the same distractions do not affect everyone in the same way would make thought-to-text speed highly variable.

Finally, how the implant will affect cognitive load specifically (and our thought processes overall) is not clear from the experiment above; the subjects from the experiment were prompted by the letters on the screen, essentially making thinking about the what to say (and, thus, cognitive load) irrelevant.

Did you mean…

Merging the implant with auto-completion applications like our smartphones have could help speed the process up, but it still won’t eliminate the fact that we need time to think, or that distractions make thinking more difficult.

If adding an “auto correct feature has the potential to affect our cognitive load, could it also fundamentally change how we think?


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