Professor Stephen Hawking is testing a tiny – two penny-sized – device that could, just possibly, allow him to ‘speak again’ – reading his thoughts directly from his brain. The gizmo, invented by Dr Philip Low, CEO of California-based NeuroVigil, was designed for sleep monitoring, but it may also be able to help people to convey messages merely by thinking them.
The device ‘reads’ brain wave patterns – and has been tested by renowned physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, who is paralysed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
‘We’d like to find a way to bypass his body, pretty much hack his brain,’ the company’s founder, Philip Low, told KGTV San Diego.
Dr Low told The New York Times: ‘The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person’s own bed, or when they’re watching TV, or doing just about anything.
‘The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command for a computer.’
The paper explained that the algorithm used by iBrain, which Dr Low calls ‘Spears’, was indeed able to translate Professor Hawking’s thoughts into individual signals.
Dr Low plans on making further investigations into this aspect of the iBrain’s capabilities, but in the meantime, it’s being used as one of the most effective diagnostic tools for sleep researchers money can buy.
The science for such a development looks promising.
Last summer Dr Low flew to Cambridge, England, and personally tested the device on Hawking.
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has left the astrophysicist almost entirely unable to control his body. He moves and communicates in painfully slow fashion, using an infrared scanner that picks up tiny twitches in his cheek muscles and translates them into words with complex computer programs.
But Hawking, 70, is losing his ability to use even those muscles as his disorder advances.
Fitted with the iBrain device, which is a black headband with a series of neurotransmitters that sit against the cranium, Hawking was told to concentrate hard on several simple actions, such as forming his hand into a fist.
Dr Low recorded the brain waves that the iBrain picked up from the actions and fed the results into his extensive mind-reading algorithm, called Spears.
With enough research, Low believes he can develop software that will convert these brain waves into thoughts, and allow them to be translated into letters words and sentences.
Eventually, it might be possible to carry on entire conversations using only the iBrain and computer translation software hooked up to speakers, Dr Low told the New York Times.
But for now, the machine has plenty of practical applications.
Swiss drugmaker Hoffmann-La Roche is working with NeuroVigil to develop software that will allow the device to monitor how drugs on working in the brain.
Low says it’s a key step toward creating highly-effective personalized medication.
It can also be used to simply and quickly diagnose autism, sleep apnea, depression and other disorders that effect the brain.