It may seem like science fiction but researchers at University of California, San Diego proved it’s possible. The new study has recreated a complex bird song complete with pitch, tone and volume from nothing more than the bird’s brain activity.
The research was focused on zebra finches, which are small, beautifully colored birds that are native to Australia. The experts implanted silicone chips into the birds brains to record the brain activity controlling vocal muscles while they sang.
The readings were then fed into a computer algorithm where computers recreated the bird songs. In research such as this, the test animals are typically euthanized when the study has concluded.
The scientists hope to sacrifice a few birds for the good of disabled people by applying this research to humans eventually. The idea is to build a “vocal prosthetic” where someone can recreate their own verbal words simply by thinking them.
“The current state of the art in communication prosthetics is implantable devices that allow you to generate textual output, writing up to 20 words per minute…Now imagine a vocal prosthesis that enables you to communicate naturally with speech, saying out loud what you’re thinking nearly as you’re thinking it. That is our ultimate goal, and it is the next frontier in functional recovery,” explained study senior author Timothy Gentner.
While it may seem like a stretch to jump from bird song to human speech, anyone who has listened on a spring morning to the cacophony knows that bird’s songs can be quite complex. In fact, the researchers say that there are many similarities between the two.
Previous research shows that if you delay the sound of a person’s voice, playing it back just a bit later, they will start to stutter. The same is true of birds when they sing.
Ultimately, the researchers hope that their prosthetic will be close in timing to actual speech. Something that can be reacted upon as we react naturally to hearing our own voice.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer