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A Stroke Stole Her Ability to Speak at 30. A.I. Is Helping to Restore It Years Later.


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A caregiver clean the implant used for the avatar study.

Eventually, researchers hope, people who have lost speech may converse in real time through computerized pictures of themselves that convey tone, inflection, and emotions like joy and anger.

Credit: Sara Hylton/The New York Times

At Ann Johnson's wedding reception 20 years ago, her gift for speech was vividly evident. In an ebullient 15-minute toast, she joked that she had run down the aisle, wondered if the ceremony program should have said "flutist" or "flautist" and acknowledged that she was "hogging the mic."

Just two years later, Mrs. Johnson — then a 30-year-old teacher, volleyball coach and mother of an infant — had a cataclysmic stroke that paralyzed her and left her unable to talk.

On Wednesday, scientists reported a remarkable advance toward helping her, and other patients, speak again. In a milestone of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, implanted electrodes decoded Mrs. Johnson's brain signals as she silently tried to say sentences. Technology converted her brain signals into written and vocalized language, and enabled an avatar on a computer screen to speak the words and display smiles, pursed lips and other expressions.

The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates the first time spoken words and facial expressions have been directly synthesized from brain signals, experts say. Mrs. Johnson chose the avatar, a face resembling hers, and researchers used her wedding toast to develop the avatar's voice.

From The New York Times
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