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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How computers helped a paralysed man write

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A breakthrough in computer research has enabled a paralysed man to ‘write down his thoughts” by decoding his brain signals to generate handwriting in real-time.

In a big win for people with paralysis, researchers have developed an accurate way of handwriting using brain signals. This allows people to write letters on a screen without physically moving any muscles in their bodies.

It has been made possible thanks to advancements in the field of Brain Computing Interfaces (BCIs). This field of computing allows researchers to analyse signals from a person’s brain as input and generate an appropriate output as a result of it.

While this is primarily beneficial to people with physical disabilities, it can change how we all communicate with each other and our devices in the future.

How the technology works

Several solutions have been developed that allow people to share their thoughts and ideas without using their hands. Speech-to-text enables people that can’t move their hands to speak into computers. Those with difficulty speaking have been able to use technology that tracks eye movements and blinks to type in the text. While some people rely on such technology and have even used it to write entire books, it’s a relatively slow input method requiring many seconds for each letter.

While BCI is a generic term for any brain-computer interface, this particular use-case works by intercepting and decoding signals produced by the brain when a person attempts to move their hands to write. It turns out that when someone’s body is paralysed’ their brain still sends out a signal to their hand telling it to move a certain way. So for it to work, the participant in the study had to imagine himself writing, which generated the appropriate signals in his brain, which were then intercepted and decoded in real-time by a computer.

Sensors were attached to the participant’s brain to detect and transmit brain activity to the computer.

One of the researchers explained that “BCI is so fast because each letter elicits a highly distinctive activity pattern, making it relatively easy for the algorithm to distinguish one from another”.

Result of the research

While the research was only done on one participant, the results are incredibly promising. The participant was 65 years old when the research was conducted. His hand was paralysed, and so he was unable to write or type.

He was able to handwrite using his brain at a rate of 90 characters per minute. While the average person his age types at a rate of 115 characters per minute on a smartphone, the gap between the two has narrowed. Additionally, this was done with a 94% accuracy, going up to 99% when autocorrection software was enabled.

For reference, the previous record for BCI input was 40 characters per minute. It involved participants controlling a cursor on the screen using their brain signals.

This new method of handwriting shows an encouraging level of success for BCI. Particularly, it can potentially allow people with physical disabilities to communicate at rates similar to those without disabilities.

Read also: Will robots take over humanity?

Potential for future expansion

While the success of this research is remarkable, it also generates excitement for the future of BCI.

BCI can be used to analyse more than just handwriting, potentially allowing people to do functions such as scrolling, zooming, clicking and typing using just their brain signals. This will enable people with disabilities to experience even more aspects of their devices than ever before. As such, it will allow them to communicate and socialise with others like never before.

According to an article published on HHMI’s website, the researchers hope to incorporate their technology with a “more comprehensive system that also includes point-and-click navigation … and even attempted speech decoding”. The goal is to replicate the smartphone experience without requiring any physical movement.

There is potential for even more exciting work too. As the field develops, we can explore how our brain signals can be used as an input with even less friction. For example, instead of manually selecting a contact to send a message to, someone can think of sending a message to them. The computer may be able to decipher that automatically. This is similar to how voice assistants such as Siri work, but without speaking at all.

If such advanced levels of BCI are achieved, we are likely to see it implemented in mainstream products. Services such as the metaverse may one day function purely on brain signals, though such a reality is still likely a few decades away.

Elon Musk, known for running Tesla and SpaceX, is also the CEO of Neuralink, a BCI company. In a talk two years ago, he explained that humans communicate with each other so much slower than computers do, describing it as “whale sounds” compared to computers. He believes that BCI can help humans communicate at a much faster rate than we currently do.

While BCI will undoubtedly have a significantly positive impact on people with physical disabilities, there is debate on their impact on everyone else. Some refer to it as another example of dystopian tech that makes them feel uncomfortable with the future. Others, though, are excited about such advancements and welcome them with open arms.

Do you believe BCI will be a driving force for good in the world, or is it another example of humans giving too much power to profit-driven tech companies? Let us know in the comments.


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