Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Aussies on the verge of bionics ‘Holy Grail’ ahead of human trials of brain machine interface technology

Australian researchers are leading the way with brain machine interface technology.
IMAGINE being able to communicate with a machine using nothing but your thoughts. 
That is the goal currently being pursued by a team of researchers and engineers at Melbourne University who are leading the way in the hugely significant field of developing brain machine interfaces.
In an effort to accomplish what has been likened to machine telepathy, they have developed a tiny biocompatible implant called a stentrode which gets implanted into a blood vessel next to the brain. The tiny implant records electric activity from a specific part of the brain and the information is then fed into a decoding algorithm which interprets the electric activity, or thoughts.
Dr Tom Oxley is leading the research and perhaps the only thing more impressive than the science involved is the story behind how he secured funding to embark on the project.
While on holiday in New York about four years ago, Dr Oxley sent a cold call e-mail to US Colonel Geoffrey Ling who at the time he had just become the director of the Pentagon’s science and research unit DARPA.
Much to the surprise of the trainee neurologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital he was quickly invited to the US Defence Department’s research agency and found himself pitching his bold idea to its top brass.
They agreed to give him $1 million to get started on his work.
“I don’t think any other body in the world would’ve funded it,” Dr Oxley tells “It was something that was so blue sky and out there.”
Dr Thomas Oxley has been working on this idea since 2007.
Dr Thomas Oxley has been working on this idea since 2007.Source:Supplied
There was some unfounded stigma that come attached with working with DARPA.
“There are a lot of cynical representations of DARPA about conducting black box evil work,” he says. “But my experience was that of an open, academically and creatively rich environment to pursue next generation research.”
It’s a misconception that extends to his work in brain machine interfaces.
Given the incredible nature of the science, many are quick to jump to lofty conclusions about its future capabilities including speculating about far flung military applications and mind control.
The technology is “an incredible step forward... but it’s a little bit overblown with what’s likely to happen here,” he says, referring to the more “science fiction” possibilities of the technology.
Dr Oxley stressed the implanted device is simply used to record information from the brain, not implanting information into it. “So when people start talking about mind control and things like that, actually this is a technology that is totally controlled by the user… it doesn’t actually work the other way around.”
His team is purely focused on the life altering benefits the technology can bring to the medical industry, primarily in the treatment of paralysis and epilepsy.
The stentrode is inserted into the blood vessel using a catheter.
The stentrode is inserted into the blood vessel using a catheter.Source:Supplied
From the DARPA funding, Dr Oxley and his team was able to use that to leverage Australian government funding.
Back in Melbourne Terence O’Brien, the head of Melbourne University’s Department of Medicine embraced the project with gusto — something which he referred to as the “Holy Grail for research in bionics”.
He introduced Dr Oxley to engineers Tony Burkitt and David Grayden who at the time were working on a bionic eye. In the following months postdoctoral researcher Nick Opie joined Dr Oxley as a lead researcher on the project.
Fast forward to 2016 and the team had successful results of animal trials published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
“It’s one thing to prove that we can record that type of data but the next stage is to demonstrate in a human that we can get the human user to control that signal in a way in which is useful,” Dr Oxley says.
Ultimately, the process hinges on the ability of the technology to translate the electric brain activity into useful information. To do so, they require a tailor-made decoding algorithm.
“There is a lot of work being done in this space but what’s lacking now is a kind of framework for people to continue to improve on these algorithms,” Dr Oxley says.
“We are modelling as best we can the decoding algorithms to make it work but really until it’s in (humans) it’s going to be challenging to improve on these systems.”
The group is aiming to carry out human trails in the near future, most likely next year, when the project will really begin to take shape.
“The beginning is probably going to be slow. We are aiming for basic control of a couple different directions on a computer screen with a cursor and then with that we hope to use that to manipulate mobility assist devices such as exoskeletons,” Dr Oxley says.
For those suffering from paralysis or severe spinal cord injuries, the technology offers “the capacity to get information out of their brain to modulate movement systems that will basically enable them to interact with their environment again.”
Another objective is to allow doctors treating a patient with uncontrollable seizures to have a constant data stream of what’s happening in their brain in order to predict and address the issue.
The team is keen to get the human patient trials under way and is certainly optimistic about the potential.
“I think what we’re seeing is the start of a whole new field,” Dr Oxley says.
Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie, the lead researchers on the project. Picture: David Caird
Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie, the lead researchers on the project. Picture: David CairdSource:News Limited

‘It's as simple as just talking’: VocaliD gives a voice to the voiceless

Imagine losing your voice. Not just for a minute, a day, or even a week. Imagine it’s not there anymore. Ever. How would you cope?
Until now, people only had access to limited technology that made everyone sound alike, with robotic tones, much like Stephen Hawking. While it’s a huge, and important, step from being mute, the speechless have sought something more human, more personal — more ‘them’.
Speech scientist Rupal Patel is helping break down communication barriers for the more than 10 million people without a voice through the groundbreaking technology, VocaliD, where Patel is chief executive officer. The company is pioneering the customization of digital voices and is working with Saatchi & Saatchi New York to help tell the story.
“We're entering in the market for assistive technology where people have to have this voice. They don't have other choices, and until now they've been given these generic sounding voices,” explains Patel, who gained wider recognition for the technology through an inspiring TED Talk.
Patel wanted to personalize the experience and she founded the company in 2014 to create custom vocal identities and celebrate the diversity of the human voice. The great thing is, anyone can contribute a voice. They just have to log on to the company’s website, turn on their computer’s microphone and record several sentences. The company then logs that voice into The Human Voicebank. This crowdsourcing of voices currently has logged over 11,000 speakers in 110 countries, and makes it affordable for anyone without a voice to get a match that fits their gender, age and personality. Essentially, it helps create a vocal DNA for the voiceless.
In addition, if someone may be losing their voice to a disease or a condition, or if for some reason they want to preserve their voice for the unexpected, they can log their own voices. Patel sees The Human Voicebank as a better way than having one voice actor recording many statements over days in a studio.
“We want to have a technology match. [What] we're able to do with six hours of someone's voice isn't going to be the same as creating a Siri-like voice for millions of dollars and lots and lots of hours. We're really pushing the envelope on technology and even the pricing part of it to see how we can get this off the ground. We do see that more and more things are going to start to talk, and we're going to be relevant then too, to that broader market,” says Patel.
Generating interest in the technology is Saatchi & Saatchi New York, who have created an engaging, interactive animated video. Goldivox tells the story of a little girl, unable to speak, who searches to find her perfect voice match. She travels the globe until she finally finds a girl whose voice is perfect. The interactivity comes when you speak the words on the screen and they are recorded during the story, changing the story as the user speaks. It not only gets the word out about VocaliD, it also encourages people to become a part of the voice bank.
“This was a very unique challenge that demanded a unique solution,” comments Jay Benjamin, Saatchi NY’s chief creative officer. “We hope this interactive storytelling experience will help people feel how powerful their own voice can be, and that they will be compelled to donate their voice through VocaliD or even spread the message to others who might donate theirs.”  
Patel is excited about the interest the Goldivox video can generate.
“As we understand Goldivox’s need to find a voice that fits, we discover that each one of us has the power to share voice. The interactive read-along invites you to empathize, act upon and cheer on Golidvox all in one. It’s so exciting to have the creative genius of the Saatchi team bring our vision to life through Goldivox’s voice.”
Benjamin said the interactivity came about somewhat by chance.
“The interactive component of it came as we worked through this together with VocaliD, and just sitting together, said, ‘wouldn't it be cool if this wasn't just an animated story, but if the viewer could actually use their voice to move the story along?’”
For Patel, developing the technology and taking it out of the lab was personal, in that she wanted to help those with disabilities who didn’t have a voice.
“They're people, and they have a voice. How do we make it so that they have their own voice because really we haven't really leveled the playing field until you give them a voice that makes them feel like a human being as opposed to just a robot, right? Seeing people with disabilities as fully human is definitely what's personal driving this. Everyday people don't even know that people with speech disabilities suffer or have to deal with this kind of technology. They just don't know. They don't meet them. They don't encounter them,” adds Patel.
“Communication disability is so isolating that people kind of get removed from society, and my hope is that they can re-enter society and be themselves. But I think it's also timely because everyone else, the people that aren't disabled, participate in that movement. I think that's the coolest thing. I can share my voice with someone who can't speak. The fact that I can do something so meaningful for them, I think people are dying to do meaningful things for people. The fact that I can record in my own home, off my own computer, that ubiquity of recording and people understanding how they can do those things pretty easily. It's all about timing, both in the social realm but also in the technological realm.”
The story of Goldivox and its interactivity is helping bring greater awareness to the cause, and Benjamin believes some of that comes from the way those who interact with their voices can steer the story.
“When we see people interact with the story it’s one of the things that actually draws them even closer to it, because their voice is the thing that's making the story happen. So you're living and breathing how your voice is going to bring someone else's story to life. And I think it's a very innovative and forward-thinking style of storytelling that I think can be used in other formats as well,” he says.
Benjamin found Chilean animator Tomas Vergara through Saatchi’s Cannes new directors showcase last year — and he essentially created the entire animation for the project, enhancing the interactivity and underscoring the commitment of those involved in telling the VocaliD story. Benjamin sees opportunities for interactive stories to develop for kids with this technology, having them be an integral part of the story, kind of like the old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, but digitally.
For her part, Patel has been approached about expanding the technology to help more people. Reading apps for people with low vision, and customizing voices for other interactive stories are possibilities. But for now, VocaliD is focusing on making lives better for the voiceless — and counts numerous times that she has received inspirational feedback from those who have used the technology, including adults and children who finally found a personality through their new voices.
“One man who we made a voice for recently had lost his voice to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’), but he didn't have any recordings of himself. It had been eight years since he and his wife had heard a voice that sounded like him. We created three different options for him. The first couple he just politely nodded and was just like, ‘Yeah, that's pretty cool. It's different than what I'm using right now.’ The third one, when he heard it, his entire body went into the shakes for a minute-and-a-half, and his wife's face changed color. Initially, I didn't know what that meant; I didn't know what they were signaling. I've gotten to know them for the last year and a half or so, and I was really nervous about playing the voice sample. What they told me, after the tears and the shaking stopped, was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is remarkably like his voice.’ There's something about voice that re-acquaints us with a person. That's really powerful in terms of finding your voice again in that scenario,” Patel shares.
Saatchi & Saatchi will continue to develop a campaign for VocaliD, including one that recruits more people to contribute their voices. They hope that it helps change people’s perception of those without a voice.
“Eventually I hope that that will trickle down to changing our attitudes about people with disabilities and what we can do about it. I think there is a complacency sometimes that we have about, ‘Well, what can I do? How can I help someone who can't speak? I don't have those skills.’ Well, you do. It's as simple as just talking. Having kids do this activity, adults, people of all ages, we need all those different voices to create the variety of voices we need. It is in so many ways the ultimate education campaign, right? A public education campaign,” Patel concludes.
Creative / Production: 
Chief Creative Officer: Jay Benjamin
Creative Director: James Tucker
Creative Director: Billy Leyhe
ACD: Brad Soulas      
Art Director: Ryan Gifford
Copywriter: Callum Spencer
Copywriter: Devin McGillivary
Business Design Director, New York and Worldwide: Blake Enting
Designer: Christopher Kelly
Head of Film: John Doris
Producer: Tegan Mahford
Animation: Peak Pictures/Tomas Vergara
Interactive Design and Development: Potato London
Head of Production: Lir Cowman
Business Development Director: Oliver Matthews
Lead Developer: Stu Cox
Developer: David Martin
Project Manager: Jemma Kamara
Project Manager: Adam Field

Music: Massive Music
Sound Design: Daniel Ferreira

Is it possible for a machine to read your mind?

Those suffering from motor neuron disease such as Lou Gehrig's struggle to turn thoughts into words. A scientist from University of California, Berkeley, aims to overcome this through advanced technology.
The idea that Professor Robert Knight has is to develop a machine that could communicate people's intended thoughts via an electronic speaker or writing device. This would be a direct aid to those with the spectrum of motor neuron conditions. A motor neuron disease refers to one of five neurological disorders that selectively affect motor neurons (these are the cells that control voluntary muscles of the body.) These conditions are: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, primary lateral sclerosis, progressive muscular atrophy, progressive bulbar palsy and pseudobulbar palsy. Lou Gehrig's Disease is an alternative name for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS.)
The idea of machine recording thoughts and playing these back through a speech device or other form of electronic communication has been the stuff of science fiction. However, this concept is no longer far-fetched. Already neuroprosthetics allows people to control artificial arms with their thoughts. 

While a fully working machine remains may years away, some recent success has been reported. Professor Knight's team have managed to playback a word that someone was thinking by monitoring their brain activity and interpreting the brainwaves. 
This impressive feat involved decoding electrical activity in the brain’s temporal lobe — the seat of the auditory system. Speaking with the Daily Mail, Professor Knight outlined the next steps: "Now, the challenge is to reproduce comprehensible speech from direct brain recordings done while a person imagines a word they would like to say."
To achieve the single word recognition has taken years of research, analyzing brain waves through electrodes and attempting to discern the relationship between brainwaves, words and the interpretation of language, The ultimate aim is to develop a fully-working brain implant. 
Some of the work to date has been published in the journal PLoS Biology ("Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex.")

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