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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Why New Brain-Sensing Technology Lets Monkeys Type Shakespeare

Stanford scientists create technology that could help severely paralyzed people communicate.

The infinite monkey theorem states that given enough monkeys and time, even while typing randomly, sooner or later the monkeys will type up the full works of Shakespeare and pretty much everything else ever written. This fun idea saw a partial incarnation courtesy of scientists at Stanford University who released a new study, promisingly titled "A Nonhuman Primate Brain–Computer Typing Interface". They didn't create a play-writing genius monkey, but they did get monkeys to type Shakespeare. Oh, and they typed with their minds.


Are these monkeys now speaking English? No. But the technology being researched is quite exciting. Its stated goal is to help very paralyzed people communicate.

The technology that was developed by Stanford's Professor Krishna Shenoy and postdoctoral scholar Paul Nuyujukian reads brain signals in order to drive a cursor that's moving over a keyboard. 

The two monkeys studied were first taught to point to patterns of on-screen yellow and green dots, which flashed to spell out specific letters. Then the monkeys were outfitted  with electrode implants in their brains (in the part that controls movement). The subjects were then shown patterns of letters (flashing dots), which spelled out texts from "Hamlet" and passages from New York Times.

The arrays were able to measure corresponding brain activity each time a monkey thought of the where to point its arm, which it previously learned to point to the next letter to spell. The monkeys were able to achieve typing speeds of 12 words per minute, three times the highest brain-based typing rate ever.

“Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in 
people,” said Nuyujukian. “It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful 
conversation."

Being able to read brain signals directly would help overcome a number of challenges presented by current typing technologies for the disabled. Stephen Hawking, for example, couldn't use eye-tracking software because of his drooping eyelids.

The new tech is now moving to a clinical trial, with the scientists sounding confident.

“The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use,” said Nuyujukian, “What we had never quantified before was the typing rate that could be achieved.” 

While they are excited about the typing rate achieved by the monkeys, they think that humans would probably type somewhat slower. 

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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The key to better quality education? Make students feel valued.

Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.

Future of Learning
  • Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
  • One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
  • "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Personal Growth

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

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