A state-of-the-art brain-machine interface created by UC San Francisco neuroscientists can generate natural-sounding synthetic speech by using brain activity to control a virtual vocal tract – an anatomically detailed computer simulation including the lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. The study was conducted in research participants with intact speech, but the technology could one day restore the voices of people who have lost the ability to speak due to paralysis and other forms of neurological damage.
The new system being developed in the laboratory of Edward Chang, MD – described April 24, 2019, in Nature – demonstrates that it is possible to create a synthesized version of a person’s voice that can be controlled by the activity of their brain’s speech centers. In the future, this approach could not only restore fluent communication to individuals with severe speech disability, the authors say, but could also reproduce some of the musicality of the human voice that conveys the speaker’s emotions and personality.
The researchers are currently experimenting with higher-density electrode arrays and more advanced machine learning algorithms that they hope will improve the synthesized speech even further. The next major test for the technology is to determine whether someone who can’t speak could learn to use the system without being able to train it on their own voice and to make it generalize to anything they wish to say.
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