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New Device Hopes to Help the Speechless to Speak

New Device Hopes to Help the Speechless to Speak
May 03
18:17 2019


The ability to communicate is one of the most important functions in society. Think about it – television, radio, phones, computers, newspapers, billboards, magazines, signs and mail. Walk into any office and even with their computers, you are bound to find files filled with paper containing all sorts of information.

Without communication, a person becomes isolated, frustrated, depressed and even suicidal.

Humans communicate visually, audibly and vocally and they are all important in their own way. But not everyone is able to use those three communication skills for a variety of reasons.

Visually impaired people rely on their hearing and hearing-impaired people rely on their vision. Both impairments also rely on the ability to speak.

But what if a person isn’t able to speak? Possibly as a result of an injury, a disease or even a birth defect can rob a person of their ability to speak. Many stroke victims find that they are still mentally alert, but have lost the ability to speak, thus finding it very to communicate with those around them.

When I was in college, I worked as a night orderly on the intensive care ward at a nursing home. Several of the residents I took care of were stroke victims that were unable to speak, or not able to speak clearly enough to be understood. A couple of them were still mentally and alert and I learned first hand how difficult it was for them trying to communicate their needs. Back then, we asked questions and looked for a blink of an eye or we had an alphabet board and would point to letters to help them spell out their words. It was time consuming and often times extremely frustrating and disappointing for the resident.

Today, some vocally impaired people use a brain–computer interface (BCI), to speak, but at best, the speech is slow, usually no more than 5-10 words a minute.

But what if there was a way to translate the brain activity or thoughts of a speechless person into a normal conversational dialog? Science fiction coming true, you think? Science yes, but fiction no:

“Researchers from the University of California San Francisco today published details of a neural decoder that can transform brain activity into intelligible synthesized speech at the rate of a fluent speaker ( Nature 10.1038/s41586-019-1119-1).”

“‘It has been a longstanding goal of our lab to create technology to restore communication for patients with severe speech disabilities,’ explains neurosurgeon Edward Chang. ‘We want to create technologies that can generate synthesized speech directly from human brain activity. This study provides a proof-of-principle that this is possible’.”

“Chang and colleagues Gopala Anumanchipalli and Josh Chartier developed a method to synthesize speech using brain signals related to the movements of a patient’s jaw, larynx, lips and tongue. To achieve this, they recorded high-density electrocorticography signals from five participants undergoing intracranial monitoring for epilepsy treatment. They tracked the activity of areas of the brain that control speech and articulator movement as the volunteers spoke several hundred sentences.”

“To reconstruct speech, rather than transforming brain signals directly into audio signals, the researchers used a two-stage approach. First, they designed a recurrent neural network that decoded the neural signals into movements of the vocal tract. Next, these movements were used to synthesize speech.”

“‘We showed that using brain activity to control a computer simulated version of the participant’s vocal tract allowed us to generate more accurate, natural sounding synthetic speech than attempting to directly extract speech sounds from the brain,’ says Chang.”

While still in the testing and research phase, the creation of this new device should be exciting news to many with difficulty speaking. Hopefully, it won’t be that long before the device is made available to the public and the people that so desperately need it.

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HLA Staff

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