NASA scientists have begun to computerize human, silent
reading using nerve signals in the throat that control speech.

In preliminary experiments, NASA scientists found that small,
button-sized sensors, stuck under the chin and on either side
of the “Adam’s apple,” could gather nerve signals, and send
them to a processor and then to a computer program that
translates them into words. Eventually, such “subvocal speech”
systems could be used in spacesuits, in noisy places like
airport towers to capture air-traffic controller commands, or
even in traditional voice-recognition programs to increase
accuracy, according to NASA scientists.

“What is analyzed is silent, or subauditory, speech, such as
when a person silently reads or talks to himself,” said Chuck
Jorgensen, a scientist whose team is developing silent,
subvocal speech recognition at NASA’s Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, Calif. “Biological signals arise when reading or
speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial
movement,” Jorgensen explained.

“A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks
to himself so quietly, it cannot be heard, but the tongue and
vocal chords do receive speech signals from the brain,”
Jorgensen said.

In their first experiment, scientists “trained” special
software to recognize six words and 10 digits that the
researchers repeated subvocally. Initial word recognition
results were an average of 92 percent accurate. The first sub-
vocal words the system “learned” were “stop,” “go,” “left,”
“right,” “alpha” and “omega,” and the digits “zero” through
“nine.” Silently speaking these words, scientists conducted
simple searches on the Internet by using a number chart
representing the alphabet to control a Web browser program.

“We took the alphabet and put it into a matrix — like a
calendar. We numbered the columns and rows, and we could
identify each letter with a pair of single-digit numbers,”
Jorgensen said. “So we silently spelled out ‘NASA’ and then
submitted it to a well-known Web search engine. We
electronically numbered the Web pages that came up as search
results. We used the numbers again to choose Web pages to
examine. This proved we could browse the Web without touching a
keyboard,” Jorgensen explained.

Scientists are testing new, “noncontact” sensors that can read
muscle signals even through a layer of clothing.

A second demonstration will be to control a mechanical device
using a simple set of commands, according to Jorgensen. His
team is planning tests with a simulated Mars rover. “We can
have the model rover go left or right using silently ‘spoken’
words,” Jorgensen said. People in noisy conditions could use
the system when privacy is needed, such as during telephone
conversations on buses or trains, according to scientists.

“An expanded muscle-control system could help injured
astronauts control machines. If an astronaut is suffering from
muscle weakness due to a long stint in microgravity, the
astronaut could send signals to software that would assist with
landings on Mars or the Earth, for example,” Jorgensen
explained. “A logical spin-off would be that handicapped
persons could use this system for a lot of things.”

To learn more about what is in the patterns of the nerve
signals that control vocal chords, muscles and tongue position,
Ames scientists are studying the complex nerve-signal patterns.
“We use an amplifier to strengthen the electrical nerve
signals. These are processed to remove noise, and then we
process them to see useful parts of the signals to show one
word from another,” Jorgensen said.

After the signals are amplified, computer software “reads” the
signals to recognize each word and sound. “The keys to this
system are the sensors, the signal processing and the pattern
recognition, and that’s where the scientific meat of what we’re
doing resides,” Jorgensen explained. “We will continue to
expand the vocabulary with sets of English sounds, usable by a
full speech-recognition computer program.”

The Computing, Information and Communications Technology
Program, part of NASA’s Office of Exploration Systems, funds
the subvocal word-recognition research. There is a patent
pending for the new technology.

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