Motionless man uses computerized thought-to-speech interface (like a blogger, but with something to say)

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.)

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy [Esquire]

PreviouslyTom Junod on Steve Jobs

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3 Responses to Motionless man uses computerized thought-to-speech interface (like a blogger, but with something to say)

  1. dculberson says:

    This is what makes technology so incredibly awesome. I wanted to go into biomedical engineering before I got a serious case of the educational lazies.

  2. Tom Flanagan says:

    Reading this post reminded me of a cool demo by one of Texas Instrument’s customers I saw earlier this year. A small company out of Illinois, Ambient, is working on a similar application. They developed a sensor that is worn around the throat that is able to sense what I would describe as “pre-speech” but I am not sure that is technically what it is called. This is a series of signals sent from the brain to the vocal chords. These signals are sent when we think of speaking even if we don’t vocalize the words. The sensor detects the signals and they can be used to synthesize speech or even control other devices. The signals are interpreted as words that are used as commands or synthesized into speech using text to speech. Ambient demonstrated their technology at our annual developers conference each of the past 2 years, first using thought to move and control a wheelchair and last year to actually place a phone call using thoughts to drive a synthetic speech application that was configured to work with Skype.

    Without knowing the specifics of Erik’s injuries it is hard to know if the Ambient approach would work for him or not. Since the Ambient approach is non-invasive the cost and complications of surgery and MRIs could be avoided. At any rate, it is great to see technology being in this way. While it is cool to work on the next generation media player or HDTV it is much more rewarding to see technology actually making a positive life changing impact for someone. Stories like these serve as an inspiration to those of us who work in embedded computing.

    If you’re interested, here’s a link to Ambient’s demonstration of this technology earlier this year:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g_RQZ-ntSw

  3. overunger says:

    Wouldn’t it be a hoot if you hooked one up to a cat and its first words were : “I can haz chezburger?”?

    Of course, that would just be silly.

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