Scientists are turning thoughts into speech. Will such advances enhance intimacy?
Will we ever be able to read minds? Thanks to researchers at San Francisco’s University of California, we may have just taken a step closer.
In a paper published in Nature, the scientists report successfully turning brain signals into computer-synthesized speech. They used a brain implant to record electrical signals related to movements of the lips, tongue, larynx, and jaw.
Next, they decoded them into instructions for a virtual vocal tract. The hope is that the technology could one day allow people with speech impairments to “talk,” making it easier for them to interact with loved ones and the world in general.
Such mind-reading technologies have potentially far-reaching implications for how we relate and connect to one another.
A penny for your thoughts
This isn’t the first device that aims to divine and reveal our thoughts.
In 2018, neuroscientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough were able to use EEG data to reconstruct images of faces shown to test subjects. The same year, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco developed a neuroprosthetic device that identifies the words a subject heard, at least in a “limited vocabulary setting.”
Researchers took a different approach in turning thoughts into speech. Rather than trying to decode particular electrical patterns into words, they recorded signals that control articulatory movements, which were then represented virtually and transformed into speech acoustics.
Professor Edward F. Chang was involved in both of these latter experiments at the University of California. In an interview with BBC, he professed that thoughts alone are difficult to decode. So his team decided to “focus on what people are actually trying to say.”
The technology could be a boon for those with speech difficulties, providing that the areas of the brain that control vocalization continue to function.
It also opens the door to the possibility that other sorts of impulses could be virtually, or perhaps robotically, reconstructed. We’ve already seen that robotic arms, for example, can be controlled with the mind. Could similar technology also read and express neural and physiological signals involved in emotions?
And if we can translate thought into speech. . . what about speech into thought? Or someone else’s thoughts directly into our brains?
A telepathic future?
Believe it or not, scientists are hard at work at brain-to-brain communication. And there have already been some success stories.
In 2004, cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick had electrode arrays implanted in his and his wife’s arms. The implants sent and received information via the Internet, allowing the couple to “feel” each other’s’ movements.
More recently, in 2013, Brazilian and American scientists achieved the first direct brain-to-brain communication in rats. Using microelectrode implants, one rat was able to tell another rat which lever to press through the power of thought alone. Also in 2013, researchers at the University of Washington developed a process in which one subject’s intention to move his hand caused another to perform the movement.
The following year, an international team of scientists managed to send a simple greeting from a subject wearing an EEG in India to three subjects in France. The process was convoluted, with the sender translating the greeting into hand or foot taps, which were then sent as binary code over the Internet and presented as flashes of light.
The prospect of telepathic communication inspires both utopian and dystopian visions when it comes to our relationships with those around us. Mass surveillance is becoming common practice, and it’s difficult to imagine that such technologies wouldn’t be abused. On the other hand, brain-to-brain communication might also allow us to build personal connections of unprecedented intimacy.
What would it be like to be able to share your thoughts, feelings, and even sensations directly with a loved one or lover? Would such an intimate connection be reserved for close relationships, or would it become a casual part of dating? Or perhaps even part of a shared social network of experiences, available to friends and, if we chose, strangers?
Of course, when it comes to new tech, it’s easy to let our fantasies run far ahead of reality. The sky might be the limit for brain-computer interfaces. But for now, there’s a long way to go between the present and “Demolition Man”-style digitized relations.
In recent years, however, progress has moved at a dizzying pace – with no sign of slowing down.
Image source: lurgen86