New brain-computer interface transmits thoughts to speech in record time

Breakthrough is major step towards real-time speech conversion

Anthony Cuthbertson
Thursday 26 January 2023 10:45 GMT
Elon Musk’s Neuralink is among several companies working on brain-computer interfaces
Elon Musk’s Neuralink is among several companies working on brain-computer interfaces (iStock)

A new brain-computer interface (BCI) has set a new record for translating thoughts to speech, neuroscientists have claimed.

A team from Stanford University said the brain chip is capable of decoding up to 62 words per minute, allowing people to communicate at speeds close to natural conversation.

Researchers fitted the device to a non-verbal patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), allowing them to produce more than a word a second with a pre-programmed vocabulary of 125,000 words.

“Our BCI decoded speech at 62 words per minute, which is 3.4 times faster than the prior record for any kind of BCI and begins to approach the speed of natural conversation (160 words per minute),” the researchers wrote in a preprint paper titled ‘A high-performance speech neuroprosthesis’.

“These results show a feasible path forward for using intracortical speech BCIs to restore rapid communication to people with paralysis who can no longer speak.”

The BCI system worked by analysing minor facial movements as the ALS patient attempted to form words with their mouth, and then decoding the associated neural activity into words.

The Stanford scientists said it marks the first time that a BCI has also far exceeded the speed of other technologies currently used by people who can no longer speak, such as eye-tracking or keyboard based approaches.

Despite the success of the experiments, the BCI system still needs to be improved before it is seen as a viable replacement for current methods.

With an error rate of around 20 per cent, the researchers wrote in the paper that “it is not yet a complete, clinically viable system”.

It is one of numerous efforts by universities and startups to develop BCI devices, which include Science Corp and Elon Musk’s Neuralink.

Mr Musk said during an event last year that Neuralink plans to begin the first human trials of its device in 2023, having already tested it on pigs and monkeys. The tech billionaire claims the brain chip will go far beyond returning speech to non-verbal patients, offering “full-bandwidth data streaming” to the brain.

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