Monkeys with brain implants are able to type out sections of the Shakespeare play "Hamlet," new research shows.
What's more, the macaques are able to type at a relatively fast 12 words per minute, with fewer typos than past brain-computer interfaces. The new brain implants could one day improve communication for those who are almost completely paralyzed, such as the polymath Stephen Hawking.
"Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in people," study co-author Paul Nuyujukian, a bioengineer who will join Stanford faculty as an assistant professor in 2017, said in a statement. "It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation." [Video: Brain Implant Helps Man Drive Wheelchair With Mind]
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Past research has shown that monkeys can control prosthetic arms, drive robotic wheelchairs, control each others' mindsand even slowly type words using their minds. However, past communication systems were typically too slow for the natural pace of conversation.
Systems currently available for people are similarly limited. Stephen Hawking, who is a quadriplegic, uses a technology that uses the minute movements of facial muscles to transcribe his thoughts, while other software relies on eye-tracking for those who are paralyzed to relay their words. However, eye- and facial-muscle tracking can take time, be tiring, and may simply be out of reach for those whose paralysis is too severe, according to the researchers.
To get around this problem, Nuyujukian and his colleagues implanted multiple electrodes inside the brains of two rhesus macaques. The team then taught the monkeys to type each letter when given a specific prompt. (The old saw is that given a typewriter and an infinite amount of time and paper, a bunch of monkeys could type the entire works of William Shakespeare by random chance, but Nuyujukian and his colleages were hoping for a more targeted effect.)