A woman with the same disorder that killed Stephen Hawking can speak again thanks to tiny brain chips.
Before 2012, 68-year-old Pat Bennett used to ride horses, jog every day, and work in human resources.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a nervous system disease that affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. These neurons drive voluntary muscle movement, like talking.
The same cancer killed Sandra Bullock’s boyfriend Bryan Randall and the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking in 2018.
But a clinical study at Stanford University has made people think differently about Bennett.
Four monitors about the size of a baby aspirin have been put into her brain.
Pat Bennett got the brain implants so she could start talking again. Stanford Medicine/Willett, Kunz, and others
She can now send her thoughts straight from her brain to a computer screen at a record-breaking rate of 62 words per minute.
This new study was called a “big breakthrough” by Professor Philip Sabes of the University of California, who helped start Elon Musk’s Neuralink company.
He told MIT Technology Review in the past, “The performance in this study is already at a level that many people who can’t speak would want, if the device were ready. “People are going to want this.”
Bennett worked with an AI algorithm for a total of 26 meetings. Each one took about four hours.
She helped teach it to figure out which brain activity matches up with 39 key phonemes, or sounds, used in spoken English.
Bryan Randall, Sandra Bullock’s partner, recently died from the illness.
During each training lesson, Bennet would try to communicate well with anywhere from 260 to 480 random sentences.
They took these sentences from a collection of phone talks from the 1990s that were put together by a company that made calculators.
Some of the lines helped Bennett be able to talk back by saying things like, “It’s only been that way for the last five years.”
Even though the algorithm makes mistakes, it is three times faster than earlier models, and at 62 words per minute, it is getting closer to the natural rate of human conversation, which is about 160 words per minute.
According to the Daily Mail, Bennett wrote in an email, “These early results have proven the concept, and eventually technology will catch up to make it easy for people who can’t speak to use.”This means that people who don’t talk can stay in touch with the rest of the world.”
Bennett had a rarer kind of ALS. She says, “When you think of ALS, you think of arm and leg impact.”But for some people with ALS, it starts with trouble speaking. I can’t say anything.”