New Mind-Reading Device Turns Thoughts Into Written Text

Tuesday, 23 June 2015 - 11:04AM
Tuesday, 23 June 2015 - 11:04AM
Has mind-reading become a reality? A recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience examines a new brain-to-text system that can translate brain activity into written words.

The study was made possible by an epilepsy treatment that requires electrodes to be placed directly in the brain. The researchers took advantage of the electrode grid already in place to test speech sounds associated with different firing patterns in the brain. According to Peter Brunner, one of the co-authors of the study, it was important to record the data directly from the brain, because picking up neural activity from the scalp only gives a blurred version of what is happening inside. However, using these epilepsy patients as subjects also limited the study, as each patient only had electrodes on the regions of his or her brain that were expected to cause seizures. 

Nonetheless, as each patient spoke, a computer algorithm learned how to associate speech sounds with their corresponding firing pattern in the brain. Eventually, the program learned to read the brain cells and synapses well enough to guess which sounds the subject was producing with up to 75 percent accuracy. Luckily, with modern technology, 75 percent is more than enough. "Because our speech only takes certain forms, the system's algorithm can correct for these errors, just like autocorrect," Brunner told Popular Science

Brunner is hopeful that the technology can eventually be used to consistently turn a person's thoughts into text in real time. "All processing steps of brain-to-text and the decoding approach are well suited for eventual real-time online application on desktop computers.... it may eventually allow people to communicate solely based on brain signals associated with natural language function and with scalable vocabularies."

But the uniqueness of our brains may get in the way; because every person's brain is different, it would be incredibly complicated to create a generalized brain-to-text device. However, this technology has a huge deal of potential for people who suffer from neurological or cognitive disabilities, such as ALS or speech deficits. According to Brunner, "This is just the beginning."

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