WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Researchers are moving closer to helping fully paralysed people communicate just by thought alone.
“To be or not to be. That is the question.”
That also happens to be the text that Monkey “J” typed out using a brain implant that he was using to control a computer cursor on a screen.
To be clear, the monkey didn’t know it was copying Shakespeare, and it had no deep thoughts about Hamlet’s famous monologue but Monkey J and its colleague, Monkey “L”, were both trained to use their neural implants to move a cursor over a computer screen, using their brain wave sto “click” circles as they turned green. Stanford University researchers then placed letters on those target circles to simulate the typing task.
So to tap out the line from Hamlet, first the “T” circle was illuminated, then the “O,” and so on.
The future of communications for paralysed people
You might ask what the point of this excersise might be and that would be a good question – no, it wasn’t just to prove to the assembled journalists that if you give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time they’d be able to re-create the great works of Shakespere. No, the researchers involved had a more practical motivation.
By simulating this typing task, they demonstrated that their brain-computer interface could greatly benefit people who can’t communicate in any other way – whether that’s by either speaking out loud, or using physical gestures. That category includes people in the late stages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which leaves the mind intact but gradually paralyzes the body – including the mouth and other face muscles.
This experiment set a new record for typing-by-mind, with one monkey tapping out 12 words per minute.
“To our knowledge, this is the highest communication level ever achieved,” says Paul Nuyujukian, a researcher at Stanford’s Neural Prosthetics Translational Lab.
How it works
The monkeys had tiny electrode arrays implanted in their brains – specifically in the part of the motor cortex that controls arm movements and those electrodes measured the amount of electrical activity in the monkeys neurons while they were trained in the Cursor-to-Control task. Originally the monkeys would simulate which buttons they were pressing by moving their arms over the appropriate circle and over time Machine Learning algorithms found patterns in the streams of brainwave data, and correlated those patterns into a monkey’s intent to move the cursor left, right, up, and down.
Then the monkeys were set to the task of moving the cursor on the screen with their minds alone. Using a Brain Cognitive Interface (BCI) the computer picked up the same patterns in the brain data, and the cursor moved smoothly from target to target.
The prior record for brain typing, set by a human patient with ALS last year, was 6 words per minute. That experiment was done by a larger group of researchers, including Nuyujukian, who are part of the BrainGate consortium and the big improvement this time was down to the softwarethe researchers used – the system used by the monkeys employed two smart algorithms in tandem, one to decode the cursor’s movement, the other to decode the monkey’s intent to click on a letter.
And there’s plenty more room for improvement, said Nuyujukian. The monkeys used an interface in which they picked one letter at a time, he says, but future interface could borrow some tricks from smartphones.
“I can imagine a smart interface that’s auto-completing the words,” he says.
“Google and Apple have done a lot of work on how to maximize the input from our very inaccurate thumbs. We can leverage a lot of that.”
Human trials of the technology are already underway. In one experiment, which the researchers presented at a conference last year, a woman with ALS used the Cursor-to- Control system with an Android tablet, using it to browse the web and write E-Mails. Such human studies make it clear that the researchers aren’t just trying to generate a wave of jokes about Shakespearean monkeys. They’re trying to give paralyzed people their autonomy and the ability to speak their minds.
But the researchers aren’t above having a little fun themselves. Nuyujukian divulged some of the early phrases they had the monkeys type out as they tested the system: “A banana, a banana, my kingdom for a banana!,” and “A banana by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Who knows, one day we might juut see a book written by a monkey topping the best seller charts.