Smart communication

Do you have a smartwatch that detects how well you slept or if your heart rate is elevated? Are you interested in learning how your body works so that you can prevent future health crises, or would you like to be able to do things with your mind? In the near future, this technology will be available for those willing to measure their brain activity instead of their pulse. But that step, from wrist to head, might not be that big.

The brain-computer interface (BCI) is a technology that measures and interprets brain activity. Several products now incorporate this technology. However, most of them are prototypes. They work by detecting your brain’s activity and can help you with everyday tasks, like changing the channel on the TV or playing your preferred music.

Nevertheless, BCI technology can be used for more life-changing activities in some cases already. Scientists are studying ways to restore communication to people who have lost the ability to speak. A stroke or paralysis, for instance, can result in language loss. However, contrary to the tasks mentioned above, interpreting the activity of the brain’s language centre requires intervention.

Synchron is one company helping patients regain their language. To make apparent their tool’s success, they let a paralysed man write on their Twitter account last year.

A similar technology is being developed by Meta (formerly Facebook) and the University of California San Francisco. Last year, they reported that their technology could help patients produce 50 different words at a rate of 18 words per minute. (Speech synthesis can be used to pronounce the written words afterward).

The average English-speaking adult has a vocabulary of over 20,000 words, and at least 500-1000 words are needed to hold a conversation. This means that the vocabulary would have to increase ten-fold from 50 to 500 words to have a basic conversation. Still, 50 words is an impressive improvement from zero, and anything above zero may inspire hope.

In addition, the technology won’t work by magic. Instead, the patient must practice a lot to write merely a few words. But lack of language will probably be a very effective practice motivator.

Check out the video from Meta/UCSF explaining how their technique for writing with a BCI works.