Neurosurgeons at the Stanford University School of Medicine have just rolled out the fastest mind-reading typing tool yet. It can compose between six to eight words per minute and give a voice to those who are paralyzed due to disease or serious injury.
Scientists have tested the machines with three subjects -- one with a spinal cord injury and two who suffer from the degenerative disease ALS -- and found the results to be faster than any brain-machine interface that's been developed thus far. "It's two to four times faster than what was previously achieved [using a brain-machine interface]," Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a neurosurgeon who led the team behind the machine's development, explained to NewScientist.
The types of machines commonly used to help those suffering from paralysis or other disabilities generally rely on some form of hand, cheek, or eye movement. That's the tech that allows guys like Stephen Hawking to speak, write, give lectures, or surf the Internet, among other things. Devices that use a brain-machine interface, on the other hand, "translat[e] neural activity into control signals for assistive communication devices," according to Stanford's report published in the academic journal eLife. It reads your mind and lets you select letters to type.
If you've ever used a TV remote (here's lookin' at you, Vizio) or video game directional pad to manually sift through an onscreen QWERTY keyboard and select individual letters one at a time, this process might look familiar to you. It's cumbersome and frustrating to use, but for this technology, it's the fastest method we've come up with yet. Here's a video that shows how the tech works.
The scientists pulled this off by surgically implanting a silicone patch filled with hundreds of tiny probes, connected to a separate computer, onto the part of the subjects' brains that controls movement. That computer decoded thoughts related to movement into the movements of an on-screen cursor. The on-screen cursor then allows the subjects to select letters or numbers. The process wasn't immediate, but volunteers were able to learn how to move the controller to spell words within a day.
NewScientist quoted one of the volunteers -- who has been paralyzed below the collar bone after a spinal cord injury 10 years ago and relies on devices -- as saying: "It’s at least five times as fast as the [eye-tracking] system I’ve been using."
That sounds like a big leap forward, and while this tech -- which the scientists referred to as "Braingate" -- is definitely still experimental, it could help a lot of people. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation estimated in 2013 that 1 in 50 Americans, or about 5.4 million people, suffer from some form of paralysis.
Hopefully it can help some of them and make it be fun, too. As another volunteer, Dennis DeGray, put it: "This is like one of the coolest video games I've ever gotten to play with."