Joshua Foer reports the plight of Erik Ramsey, a young man unable to move a muscle, and an experimental neuro-interface he’s helping to test that may convert his thoughts directly into synthesized speech:
In the largest room of the dark, cluttered office, tables are stacked with computer monitors and electronics equipment, and a web of cables drapes between dislodged ceiling tiles. In the center of the room, Erik Ramsey is sitting in his wheelchair, wearing a blue sweat suit and slippers, with a bundle of wires coming out the back of his head. He’s staring at a wall onto which Kennedy has projected a matrix of six words: heat, hid, hat, hut, hoot, and hot. They represent each of the major English vowel sounds. Kennedy, tall and stately at sixty, asks Erik to think about making the sound uh-ee. As he does, a green cursor jitters across the wall from hut to heat, and a booming vibrato pours out of the speaker: “uuuhahuuuuhaheeeeeeee.” The sound is coming straight from Erik’s brain.
Kennedy is trying to help Erik become the first human being ever to have his thoughts translated directly into speech. In November 2004, Kennedy’s team put Erik into an fMRI scanner and showed him images of animals. While the scanner monitored Erik’s brain activity, Kennedy asked him to say the name of each animal in his head: “This is a lion. This is an elephant.” The fMRI produced a map guiding them to the precise area of Erik’s brain that was activated when he tried to speak, a region of the premotor cortex that controls movement of the mouth, lips, tongue, and jaw. A few weeks later, neurosurgeons working with Kennedy opened Erik’s skull and threaded a tiny glass cone containing three long, hair-thin Teflon-coated gold wires into exactly that part of his brain.
All this great tech reporting is making me forgive your less-than-attractive e-ink cover, Esquire! (I still bought one, though, you sneaky bastards.)
Previously • Tom Junod on Steve Jobs