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Brains, Bandwidth and Elon Musk

This works because when the subjects imagine saying words, the electrodes measure their motor neurons, whose firing rate contains information about how they are trying to move their tongue and larynx. From these data it is now possible to determine what words people are thinking of saying with surprising accuracy. Researchers believe that with more electrodes listening to more neurons, and more bandwidth, they’ll get even better at it.

“We don’t need more electrodes for cursor control, but for speech, we are in a regime where data rate matters a lot,” says Angle. “It’s very clear we need to increase the channel count to make those systems viable. With a thousand electrodes, it will be as good as a cell phone transcribing your speech. So in this situation, yes, you’re increasing the information rate by 10 or a hundred times.”

Bottom line: When it comes to enhancing communication between nondisabled people my sources were skeptical that more bandwidth matters. The brain’s going to get in the way. But when it comes to restoring function, it does matter. It takes a lot of neurons—and a lot of data—to get a patient back to communicating at that basic 40 bits a second.

​​Read more from Tech Review’s archive

In 2021, I profiled Dennis DeGray, a paralyzed man who, at that time, was the world record holder for direct brain-to-computer communication. He could type via his thoughts  at 18 words a minute “It’s almost a conversation between the device and myself,” DeGray told me. “It’s a very personal interaction.”

But speed records keep falling. This August, researchers demonstrated that two people who’d lost the ability to speak–one due to a stroke, another because of ALS–were able to quickly utter words through a computer connected to implants placed in their brains. Read the report by Cassandra Willyard here. 

A few years back, Adam Piore recounted the bizarre tale of Phil Kennedy, a pioneering brain-implant researcher who took the extreme step of getting an implant installed in his own brain. 

From around the web

A second person has received a heart from a gene-modified pig. Lawrence Faucette, a Navy vet with heart failure, underwent transplant surgery on September 20 in Maryland. The previous subject lived two months after the surgery. (Associated Press)

Scientific sleuths are getting better at uncovering rotten research. (WSJ)

Those new generation weight-loss drugs were prescribed to 1.7% of Americans in 2023. And you can expect the market for semaglutide to expand fast. That’s because more than 40% of Americans are obese. (CNN)

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