You don’t need an infinite number of monkeys to type out the complete works of William Shakespeare.
What you need, according to a team of researchers from Stanford University, is one monkey equipped with a brain implant that allows it to interface with a computer.
In a new experiment described in the journal IEEE, researchers were able to use a brain-computer interface (BCI) to enable thought-controlled typing at a rate of up to 12 words a minute — the highest brain-based typing rate ever achieved. In the experiment conducted on two rhesus macaques, the animals were able to transcribe passages from Hamlet and the New York Times.
“Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in people. ... The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use,” Stanford researcher Paul Nuyujukian, who led the study, said in a statement Monday. “It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation.”
In order to connect the monkeys’ brains to the computer, the researchers implanted tiny multielectrode arrays into the regions of the brain that control hand and arm movement. They were then trained to point to letters flashing on screen, during which the arrays would measure the patterns of electrical activity in their brain cells.
Currently, the BCI techniques that are being used by people suffering movement disabilities involve tracking eye movements or, in the case of the British cosmologist Stephen Hawking — who suffers from a slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — tracking movements of individual muscles in the face.
However, as the researchers explain, since these techniques require a certain amount of muscle control, they are not of much use for patients who are completely paralyzed.
“Directly reading brain signals could overcome some of these challenges and provide a way for people to communicate their thoughts and emotions,” the researchers said.
It goes without saying that the monkeys in this particular experiment did not suddenly jump the evolutionary ladder and learn to read, comprehend and write English. All they did was learn — using a “cheat sheet” — to copy text by pointing to dots on a computer screen.
When it comes to humans, this technology can be paired with an auto-completion technology used by smartphones or tablets in order to drastically improve typing speeds. On the flip side, however, the typing speeds of humans using the technology is likely to be slowed down by the fact that they need to actually think about what they want to communicate and how to spell words.
“What we cannot quantify is the cognitive load of figuring out what words you are trying to say,” Nuyujukian said.