In a major blow to the typewriter industry, a pair of rhesus macaque monkeys has managed to type out one of Shakespeare’s most iconic soliloquies using only their brain waves. Though this achievement may have just saved 1,000 monkeys a full millennium of work, its true significance lies in its potential to help paralyzed people to communicate.
At present, several technological solutions exist for people suffering from locked-in syndrome or other conditions that prevent them from being able to speak to or interact with others. Stephen Hawking, for instance, uses his facial muscles to control a computer, while others use eye-tracking programs. However, many people lack the muscular control to operate these sorts of systems, which is why scientists have been working on creating an algorithm that can read and decode neural activity as a means of controlling a cursor on a screen.
A new study appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE explains how scientists from Stanford University were able to refine this algorithm in order to enable two monkeys to type at a speed of 12 words per minute. Study co-author Paul Nuyujukian said in a statement that the software used to achieve this “enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation.”
The researchers implanted electrodes into the arm motor regions of the monkeys’ primary motor cortices – the part of the brain that controls the movement of the arms – allowing them to move a cursor on a screen with their neural activity. The animals were then trained to perform a writing task, whereby they had to use this cursor to select letters on a virtual keyboard when they were lit up in green.
Following the sequence of letters, the monkeys were able to type out Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech, as well as several articles copied from the New York Times.
According to the researchers, humans may not be quite as fast as the monkeys at typing, as we have to actually think about what we want to spell out, rather than just copying a text. However, the study authors say that if this brain-computer interface can one day be combined with the kind of autofill technology currently used in smartphones, then communication could be made much faster.