'Thought-reading' system controls wheelchair and synthesizes speech

Although some people claim their mouths operate independently of their brains, that's not usually the case. The brain sends neurological signals to the larynx, which converts them into sound. Now, what if we could use those larynx nerve signals to control things?

That's exactly what a company called Ambient is doing. Its Audeo technology basically converts "unspoken speech" (neurological signals flowing through larynx nerves when a person thinks about speaking) into control commands that can be used to guide a motorized wheelchair (video above) or synthesize speech. Pretty amazing!

The company apparently stole the show this month at National Instrument's NI Week in Austin. Ambient's founder and CEO, Michael Callahan, gave a demonstration of the company's "thought-controlled" wheelchair and "thought-to-speech" translation system. (You can see the demo at the NI Week video page; it's the last segment, called "Algorithm Engineering," on the August 7 list.)

To use the system, a person wears a lightweight sensor band around the neck. The band picks up the larynx nerve signals and transmits them wirelessly to a remote computer (don't worry about "mind wiretapping" -- the transmission is encrypted.) The remote computer uses NI LabVIEW and signal processing algorithms to interpret the nerve-impulse patterns and translate them into the right commands.

The system is not plug-and-play. It does require some training until its algorithms learn to "read your mind" (accuracy is above 70 percent). But at least it doesn't require Matrix-style brain interfaces or a tangle of EEG electrodes wrapped around your head.

Callahan, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hopes to commercialize the technology to improve the lives of severely disable people with spinal cord injuries or such neurological disorders as ALS and cerebral palsy. (The company is backed by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.)

OK -- not exactly related to robotics, but very cybernetic nonetheless. I wonder what things we might control with this technology one day. Any guesses?

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