It looks like gone are the days where we have to type to process action on our smartphone or any other gadget. As time has moved along, various devices have introduced voice-command technologies which enable us to simply ‘say’ what we would like our phones to do. Apple iPhone’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are the best examples of how voice-command technologies have evolved.
Facebook has recently announced that they have made a breakthrough in their plan to create a device which allows users to type just by thinking. Now, as exciting as this concept may be, there will also be some need to consider the ethical breaches which could be made, should it go through. Facebook-funded a study that developed machine-learning algorithms capable of turning brain activity into speech.
It worked on epilepsy patients who had already had recording electrodes placed on their brains to assess the origins of their seizures, ahead of the surgery. Facebook hopes it will set the way for a "fully non-invasive, wearable device" that can process 100 words per minute. For the main basis of the experiment, students from the University of California San Francisco asked the patients to answer out loud a list of simple multiple-choice questions ordered randomly. The algorithms then identified the question they had been asked, 75% of the time and their chosen answer, 61% of the time.
"Most previous approaches have focused on decoding speech alone," said Professor Eddie Chang, "but here we show the value of decoding both sides of a conversation - both the questions someone hears and what they say in response.
"This reinforces our intuition that speech is not something that occurs in a vacuum and that any attempt to decode what patients with speech impairments are trying to say will be improved by taking into account the full context in which they are trying to communicate.
"Currently, patients with speech loss due to paralysis are limited to spelling words out very slowly using residual eye movements or muscle twitches to control a computer interface.
"But, in many cases, the information needed to produce fluent speech is still there in their brains.
"We just need the technology to allow them to express it."
After the experiment, Facebook wrote on their blog “Ultimately, the researchers hope to reach a real-time decoding speed of 100 words per minute with a 1,000-word vocabulary and the word error rate of less than 17%,". However, the ethics of this potential concept are causing a few doubts among experts. Professor Nita Farahany said, “To me, the brain is the one safe place for freedom of thought, of fantasies and for dissent”.