An experimental technology could allow paralyzed individuals to communicate more easily. In a promising new study, a paralyzed man was able to type 90 characters a minute by visualizing himself writing the individual characters out by hand with the aid of a neural implant.
Previous research into using implants to facilitate communication for those with motor impairments have focused on enabling subjects to use their mind to move a cursor and select characters on a keyboard. Although this method has proven accurate and effective, it also has some significant shortcomings: since the user inputs characters by simulating a key press on a digital keyboard, it requires their full attention. There’s also a learning curve as new users must be taught how the system works. It’s slow, too — the user must first find the character on the keyboard then move the cursor to the character and “click” it.
The new implant is much faster than previous technology. The subject of the study achieved a typing speed of 90 characters per minute, outstripping the previous record of 25 characters per minute. This is because it is based on the user envisioning handwriting the characters, a skill that can be done with little effort and attention. Most individuals can hand write words while engaging in other activities. It’s also 94% accurate, which the researchers were able to improve to 98% by implementing autocorrect. They were even able to get it working in real-time by utilizing a neural network trained with recorded neural data.
The researchers admit that the technology isn’t quite ready for clinical trials. So far, it’s only been tested on one subject; other individuals might not experience the same success with adapting to the implant. The researchers also noted that the system’s accuracy and behavior fluctuated, requiring a system recalibration once every week. This is something they suspect may be attributed to the shifting of neurons or the growth of scar tissue in the implant area.