Monkey Typewriters and You!

What Primary Primate Research Could Mean for the Future


Jake Jasko
Assistant Editor-in-Chief

Ever wanted to know if a group of monkeys with typewriters really could pump out a passage of Shakespeare? Me neither!

But that’s too bad because science has gone ahead and tried to do it anyways. And it looks like they might be succeeding.

Technology developed by two Stanford Bio-X researchers has resulted in answers to questions nobody asked seriously. Using brain sensing technology, Krishna Shenoy and Paul Nuyujukian have had monkeys transcribe parts of Hamlet and the New York Times at a rate of approximately twelve words per minute. Whoa.

Earlier versions of this technology are already available, and are used to aid people with paralysis to express themselves. By tracking facial or ocular movement, they’re able to much more easily express themselves. But that tech is still slow and imprecise.

This new stuff uses brainwaves, and it has drastically increased the speed and precision of the user. It comes with other benefits as well, since many find the eye-tracking version to be incredibly tiring to use. Simpler, faster, more efficient, Nuyujukian states that with some more time the technology will have a typing rate fast enough to encourage and allow for meaningful conversation.

Some people who could find this interfacing technology would be useful for those who suffer from ALS, like Stephen Hawking.

The interface used by the monkeys is exactly the same as the one humans would use. With a transcription rate of twelve words per minute, one can only imagine that with practice and improvements, humans will greatly outspeed monkeys. Probably.

The researchers have posited that perhaps people will type more slowly as they consider how to spell words or properly convey their message. The current iteration of the program doesn’t use any autocorrect or autocomplete features, and could possibly be paired with either to speed up conversation.

Preliminary research also shows that the sensor is stable, and could last several years. Animals with the implant have showed no signs of any side effects, and the sensor itself has showed no signs of slowing down or performance loss.

Researchers from the same team at Stanford have been trying to develop all kinds of technologies that will be interfacing with the brain. The Brain-Machine Initiative intends on creating and evolving technology that interfaces with the brain and brain waves to better help in interpreting them faster and more efficiently.

While monkeys may not be writing Shakespeare, transcribing it is certainly a big step forward. Primate trials with technology like this offer such interesting and important results that their effectiveness cannot be denied. Initiatives like the one at Stanford only offer us opportunities to evolve and improve, even if that means one day we’ll have to deal with an influx of bad monkey fan-fiction.

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