Voice for the Voiceless

Michael Callahan of Ambient Corp. in Champaign, Ill. and the University of Illinois has recently introduced The Audeo, a thought-to-speech interfacing device which acquires and converts neurological signals into vocalizations. The device allows users to communicate with a computer much in the way voice recognition software does. However, instead of encrypting wave patterns detected in recorded utterances, The Audeo acquires and discerns individual words from neurological signals produced by the intent to vocalize.

The Audeo is being developed to create a human-computer interface for communication without the need of physical motor control or speech production. Using signal processing, unpronounced speech representing the thought of the mind can be translated from intercepted neurological signals. By interfacing near the source of vocal production, the Audeo has the potential to restore communication to people who are unable to speak. The proposed solution is a featherweight wireless device resting over the vocal cords capable of transmitting neurological information from the brain. Using data analysis, this information can be processed into synthesized speech or a menu selection capable of conveying the basic necessities of human life.

Callahan suggests possible applications of the technology, including wheelchair control for the disabled and thought-to-speech conversion for patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who lose the ability to speak over time. Demonstrations of the device can be found in the media section of The Audeo’s website as well as at the Texas Instruments Developer’s Conference Keynote. Although the prospect of retaining voices for ALS patients sounds promising, there may be a down side. If such technology were cheap and efficient, would this bear implications on sign language? As Standard American English (and other prestige dialects) continues to be commodified on 24-hour global news networks, endangering small languages, could the prospect of a new voice place signed languages in danger?

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