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“Mindwriting” with brain signals
By Jerry Brownstein
Two recent experiments that seem like science fiction are helping paralyzed people who cannot speak to communicate in amazing new ways. At Stanford University (US), a man paralyzed from the neck down has gained the ability to type words by using signals from his brain. This “mindwriting” system works through a brain-computer interface (BCI) that converts the man’s thoughts about writing into actual letters on a computer. Previous machines that were designed to allow paralyzed people to write tracked eye movement. It was very slow as the patient went through all of the letters of the alphabet, and blinked when he finally saw the correct letter. In this new system all the patient has to do is imagine in his mind that he is writing. The BCI tracks the brain signals that he is sending for the writing of each letter, and then shows that letter on the screen. “With this BCI our study participant achieved typing speeds which are about as fast as the average smartphone user.”

In another scientific milestone, researchers at the University of California (US) created a different type of 
BCI to change the life of a man named Pancho who is paralyzed and cannot speak. They were able to read signals from the speech areas of his brain when he tried to speak. Electrodes implanted in his brain detected signals he was sending to speech-related processes in the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. When Pancho tries to speak (even though he cannot), his thoughts stimulate the electrodes, which transmit these signals to a form of artificial intelligence that recognizes the intended words, and then displays them on the screen.

The head of the project Dr. Edward Chang explains: “Our system translates the brain activity that would have normally controlled his vocal tract, directly into words and sentences.” By funnelling the results through a language-prediction system, the computer correctly recognized individual words 75% of the time. During research sessions Pancho wrote: “Not being able to communicate with anyone or express yourself in any way is devastating. This is very much like getting a second chance to talk again.”


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