Brain-computer interfaces are nothing new—several companies have developed technologies that allow one to conduct a number of pre-determined activities, such as moving a cursor, by monitoring brain waves. But one group of researchers at the National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies and the State University of New York at Albany are hoping to take that concept a step further, and have successfully tested what may be the world’s first “brain to text” interface—a device that can read ones mind and translate those thoughts to digital text.
The research, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, is still in its very early stages. Seven subjects participated in the test which, while it yielded positive results, required a few tricks and extreme measures. Firstly, for the computer to access neural activity, electrodes had to be placed directly onto the subjects’ brains.
As one might imagine, it’s not that easy to find candidates willing to have their skull opened up in the name of science—so the team worked with epileptic patients at Albany Medical Center, who were having electrodes placed on their brain to provide data about their seizures. These patients agreed to allow the “brain-to-text” team to piggy back on their medical treatment and participate in the study.
Each of the subjects then read aloud from a series of texts—The Gettysburg Address, J.F.K.’s Inaugural Speech, Charmed fan fiction and a children’s book—and the computer monitored their thoughts as they spoke each word. Phonetic labels were created based on their speech using an English automatic speech recognition program, and the computer was programmed with a limited “dictionary”—ie., it wasn’t going to try to understand every single word in the human language.
And the good news is, it worked. As the scientists noted in their conclusion: “The approach introduced here may have important implications for the design of novel brain-computer interfaces, because it may eventually allow people to communicate solely based on brain signals associated with natural language function and with scalable vocabularies.” And while the tests were performed offline, the team believes there is a future in systems that connect the brain in real time to computers and the Internet—which is not only incredibly cool, but could also help those with certain illnesses. As long as they figure out how to do it without physically accessing the brain first.
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