Breakthrough experiment translates thought to speech – what that really means

A team of neuro-engineers at Columbia University have created a system that translates thought into intelligible, recognizable speech. I wanted to share some of the insights that this exciting news...

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January 30, 2019

A team of neuro-engineers at Columbia University have created a system that translates thought into intelligible, recognizable speech. The technology can reconstruct the words a person hears with unprecedented (there were experiments before, but not with this success rate) clarity, by monitoring someone's brain activity

Though the technology opens up a lot of possibilities, like brain-connected smartphones that could let users text using their mind, these are still a long way off. Dr. Nima Mesgarani, who led the study, claims that he sees great potential to help restore speech to people recovering from a stroke or living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

I wanted to share some of the insights that this exciting news triggered in my as of yet not directly connected brain:

1. The era of BCI is nearing

Step by step we are nearing the dream (or nightmare) of BCI (Brain Computer Interface), a domain in which we are seeing a lot of action, including by the man who seems to be present literally anywhere in futuristic research: Elon Musk and his very mysterious Neuralink company. We are not there yet, but there have been numerous breakthroughs in the matter: including brain controlled prosthetics and even recently: brain to brain communication.

Watch this Economist video the understand the implications that seamless BCIs will have on human kind:

Just as a potentially weird side-note: I just realized what BCIs and ‘thought translation’ could mean for the communication with animals or with infants that have not yet grown into speech.

2. Will emotions rule us?

This type of breakthroughs is treading a really fine line between extremely helpful and horrendously boundary shattering. Quite literally, in fact, the ‘boundary’ of our bodies have always guarded the privacy of our minds, but that’s all about to be changed. Facial recognition is already a huge step in that direction: as algorithms are extremely good at reading our emotions, intent and health from our faces. But just imagine what will happen if Facebook or any other community that will dominate in the future, will be connected directly to our brain, thoughts and emotions.

This might even lead to deeply philosophical questions like: are we defined by our actions and our speech or are we defined by our thoughts? I mean, I (try to) behave in a civil manner to people who annoy or bore me to death, but the full transparency of facial recognition or BCI could very well take away that thin polite layer of civil behaviour. Thoughts are a lot harder to control than action and speech, are they not? So image if our communication is plugged in directly to our thoughts and emotions. That way, and very ironically, BCIs could bring our less sophisticated limbic brain region (the motor of our emotions) back to the front. Will we be ruled more by our impulses, then? I’m very, very curious about that.

Check this video if you want to know about the difference between the reptilian, limbic and neo cortex brain regions:

3. "Saving" human kind (in order to avoid ethics & privacy)

It’s very striking to see how radical experiments that balance on this fine line between extremely helpful and overstepping privacy, tend to use a health(care) or charity related discourse. In this case of the Columbia experiment, researchers are carefully making sure to frame the commercial usage - like plugging in our thoughts to a phone - in a very futuristic context while they are forcibly emphasising the ‘soft’ and really helpful matter of helping stroke patients communicating again. This conveniently relieves them of the need to tackle the ethical side of the development: “Oh no no, we need not be scared of privacy, because the commercial use is still a long way off. But, hey, look at how we could be helping mankind. How awesome is that?”

They are really not the only ones, though. Elon Musk is developing Neuralink “to save mankind”. He believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon outsmart – well, out-everything, really - us and that, as a result, AI will treat humanity basically like a pet. Stripped down to its essence: Musk is developing a commercially viable product that will close the gap between human minds and technology, and thus possible enhancing the technology’s control over human kind … to save human kind of technology. Oh, the irony of it all. The same goes for Facebook which used a same type of ‘benevolent’ discourse when it launched its ‘automatic alternative text’. Basically, Facebook was using object recognition technology to automatically describe photos for people who were not able to see those photos. It said it wanted to help the blind and visually impaired ‘see’ the photos and connect with their friends. What is really was doing was introducing an non-threatening reason to make it’s computer vision algorithms smarter without having to discuss the ethics and privacy issues behind that.

Here's how Facebook likes to describe how it's (training its algorithmsto take over by) trying to help the blind. It's really touching.

So, these are my two cents. As per usual, I wasn’t able to synthesize my thoughts into a concise post. I'm very bad at that. I really wanted to write only 2 paragraphs max about the thought-to-speech translation, but I failed miserably. I apologize for that. (I’ll try to do better next time.)

In the meantime, check these posts of you want to read up on the Columbia University news. You could also Google it. I hear that's a great way of finding stuff.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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January 30, 2019