Remember that old thought experiment about monkeys, Hamlet, and the typewriters? Well that experiment might finally be turned on its head by a new development out of Stanford University’s interdisciplinary Bio-X research laboratories.
According to a Stanford press release, a team of neuroscientists and engineers have invented mind-reading technology that has given monkeys the ability to type up to twelve words per minute. That means one of those monkeys would only need around forty-three hours to type all 30,557 words of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy.
The technology behind this development involves some of the most cutting-edge neuroscience today. Electrodes are implanted directly into a user’s brain where they then detect brain waves emitted from the motor cortex, the region of the brain that controls the movement of the body. Powerful computer algorithms then analyze and interpret the readings detected by the sensors, and these algorithms are the true breakthrough here; while brainwave-detecting electrodes have been in use for some time, interpreting those signals has been heretofore a very troublesome task.
Using this system, the trained laboratory monkeys in this study were able to type up to twelve words per minute of either Hamlet or The New York Times. The monkeys had been previously trained to use a keyboard to type letters that appear on a screen in front of them. This new mind-reading tech allowed the monkeys to leave their crinkled little monkey hands for other monkey business and type using solely their minds.
Stanford bioengineering postdoctoral fellow Paul Nuyujukian stated in the university’s press release that this technology might soon be cleared for human use, potentially giving disabled persons that ability to type at a much faster rate than conventional accessibility technologies allow:
Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in people. It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation.
Nuyujukian notes, though, that while this technology allows for hands-free typing, humans engaging in actual conversation would likely be much slower than the monkeys copying text due to the somewhat arduous task of selecting each individual letter:
What we cannot quantify is the cognitive load of figuring out what words you are trying to say […] Also understand that we’re not using auto completion here like your smartphone does where it guesses your words for you.
This research is funded and undertaken by the Stanford Brain-Machine Interface initiative, an interdisciplinary program designed to develop technologies that seamlessly integrate with our minds. Other research institutions have been making similar advances in brain interfaces lately, as demonstrated by an Ohio State University project that allowed a paralyzed man to regain motor control and an intercollegiate mind-controlled drone competition hosted by the University of Florida.