New brain-sensing technology invented by Stanford University neurosurgeons has been used to enable monkeys to transcribe passages from the works of Shakespeare and a prominent national newspaper at a rate of up to 12 words per minute, the school announced on Monday.
The monkeys testing the technology had been trained to type letters corresponding to what they see on a screen.
The monkeys were able to move a cursor backwards and forwards on a grid which represents letters of the alphabet by thinking about moving up and down, left and right.
In 2015, Stanford researchers demonstrated a brain-computer interface that allowed two paralysed people to control a cursor with greater accuracy than before.
The researchers believe the technology could soon provide a more efficient way for people with paralysis to communicate.
“The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use”, Nuyujukian said.
While most now available technology in this field either tracks the movements of the eyes or individual facial muscles, such devices are limited and require a level of muscular control that some individuals simply do not have, the study authors explained. And in a video of the software used by the team, an on-screen cursor is controlled across a digital keyboard, with the correct letter being typed when the cursor hovers over the green icon. In other words, there’s now an upper bound on typing speeds, or communication speeds for that matter of fact, given specific brain-computer interfaces. For this study, the animals transcribed passages of New York Times articles or, in one example, Hamlet. “It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation”, explained Nuyujukian, who plans to join Stanford’s faculty as an assistant professor of bioengineering in 2017. However, these have limitations, and can require a degree of muscle control that might be hard for some people.
Other techniques, which rely on eye tracking or facial movements, tend to be tedious (just ask Stephen Hawking), while previous versions of BCIs have resulted in slow and imprecise typing among paralyzed human test subjects.
‘What we had never quantified before was the typing rate that could be achieved’.
If the group is successful, technologies for directly interpreting brain signals could create a new way for people with paralysis to move and communicate with loved ones.
Adding that even a rate marginally slower than 12 words per minute would be a major achievement, Nuyujukian said that the technology could eventually be used by smartphones and tablets to improve typing speeds.
This mind-reading experiment, however, is not to be confused with an uncannily similar experiment involving a team of virtual monkeys tasked to complete an entire passage from another of Shakespeare’s works in the past.