Science fiction has been heralding the advancement of artificial intelligence for decades. Through characters ranging from Samantha in “Her” to C-3PO in “Star Wars” and Data in “Star Trek,” creatives have been showcasing both fear and excitement around these technological advancements.
Alex Huth grew up consuming these films and TV shows as a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd. These ideas sparked a long-lasting quest to see if computers could be smarter. As the distant future comes rushing into the present, he is now a creator of AI himself, and he intends to showcase how the technology can be used for the greater good.
Huth and his team have developed an artificial intelligence system that can translate a person’s thoughts and brain activity into a continuous stream of text. The noninvasive system had participants attend one-hour sessions inside an MRI scanner 16 times. While listening to podcasts, an encoding model and a neuroscience tool predict how the brain would respond to the words.
“(The decoder) works on the ideas,” says Huth, an assistant professor of neuroscience and computer science. “What is the idea of the thing you’re trying to say or what’s the idea of the thing you’re hearing?”
Similar decoders have been used to restore communication to people with motor impairments — such as stroke patients who are cognitively functional but have lost the motor functions for speech. Huth’s team is hopeful that its system will help people with disorders such as Broca’s aphasia, a condition where people do have full function over their motor skills but can’t convert ideas into words. This can result in broken grammar or difficulty forming complete and clear sentences.
“We might be able to use this in situations where the existing methods wouldn’t work,” Huth says. “We’re very interested in the possibility that our system could actually restore communication for people with (these disorders). … If we can get at the idea, then we can jump over the point that’s broken.”
Jerry Tang, a computer science graduate student and member of Huth’s team, spent years in high school working as a counselor at a summer camp for kids with special needs. A lot of that time he spent playing, coaching and getting to know kids who had conditions such as cerebral palsy and had trouble communicating.
“The kids are awesome, and it was really cool to learn more about their life,” Tang says. “That was just a really formative experience that kind of stuck with me. When (I was) applying to colleges, one thing I was really interested in was thinking about ways to use technology to help people with these types of disorders.”