WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Many people take the ability to communicate for granted, but millions of people aren’t as fortunate, but new computing systems are breaking down the walls.
Those crazy researchers at Stanford University have done it again – not content building virtual reality avatars with three arms to improve productivity, or disrupting cloud computing using Blockchain, they’ve built a new Brain Machine Interface (BMI) that allows paralyzed people to type with their brains ten times faster than before. And if you’re paralysed that’s a huge deal, although hopefully one day soon those people could see their paralysis reversed, but that’s another story…
For their study, they worked with three participants who had severe limb weakness, two because they had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and one who had a spinal cord injury. All three participants had electrode arrays embedded in their brains to record signals from the motor cortex, which controls muscle movement and then a cable transmitted their brain signals to a computer, where they were translated by algorithms into point-and-click commands that prompted a cursor to move over letters. In short, participants were able to move the cursor by imagining their own hand movements.
While it took training – these things don’t come naturally, just ask the rookie who flew a plane around Seattle using just his brain – some of the participants were able to “type” at 39 characters, or around 8 words a minute proving that BMI’s have the potential to enhance communication among people with impaired movement. And it should be noted that these typing rates were achieved without the use of automatic word completion which would obviously speed the process up.
“The performance is really exciting. We’re achieving communication rates that many people with arm and hand paralysis would find useful. That’s a critical step for making devices that could be suitable for real-world use,” said Chethan Pandarinath, one of the researchers involved in the project.
Over the past year there have been huge strides made helping disabled people communicate in ways they’d never imagined possible – recently, for example, researchers at the Wyss Center in Geneva, Switzerland developed a new BMI system that helped people with locked-in syndrome communicate for the very first time.
In the US alone, millions of people suffer from paralysis, or other debilitating conditions like ALS and this new point and click approach is life changing, but the technology doesn’t stop there and we’re even beginning to see researchers try to use BMI to help the paralysed walk again.
With some modifications, the Stanford team believes its new system could be applied to other devices, including smartphones or tablets.
“We’re approaching half of what, for example, I could probably type on a cell phone,” said neurosurgeon and co-senior author Jaimie Henderson, “this study reports the highest speed and accuracy, by a factor of three, over what’s been shown before.”
In the future, the team hopes to refine the technology so that it becomes wireless, fully implanted, and self-calibrating, so it can be there 24/7. Now all we have to do is fix those pesky auto-complete sisters, er… systems.