Technology breakthrough offers hope for people silenced by disability

New Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that will allow people with motor neurone disease (MND) to have a conversation in their own voice, even after losing the ability to speak, has been created by a collaborative group of some of the world’s leading experts.

The Motor Neurone Disease Association has partnered with Rolls-Royce and its data innovation catalyst, R2 Data Labs, and some of the world’s leading technology companies, including Accenture, Dell Technologies, Intel and Microsoft, to pool technology and expertise to improve the lives of those living with extreme disabilities.

For the first time, those living with MND will be able to have a conversation through a computer using their own voice, words, colloquialisms and accent, without pausing to type answers or being restricted to a prescribed set of words. The new technology, called Quips, uses voice-banking and AI to learn a person’s unique language style and use it in conversation.

Nick Goldup, Director of Care Improvement for the MND Association, said:

“MND affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord which tell muscles what to do. As the disease progresses people lose the ability to move, eat, speak and eventually to breathe. The technology available to help people communicate has changed little in the recent past – most people will be familiar with Professor Stephen Hawking’s computerised voice which he programmed using his eyes. This technology will allow people living with MND to communicate closer to ‘real time’ than they can with existing technology.”

Quips is in its early stages, but Rolls-Royce is aiming for it to be implemented into some of the leading augmented and alternative communication packages that already exist, such as those used by Professor Hawking.

Quips listens to the conversation, suggesting words and phrases that the user is likely to want to say, based on its understanding of their previous conversations. The user can quickly select sentences which are read out in their own voice instantly, with their own accent and local colloquialisms, without gaps for typing. It even includes slang and can adapt to different situations and people, such as work, home, or even the pub.

Nick said:

“Having your voice stripped away is one of the most brutal aspects of MND. Technology that allows people to retain those things that make them unique – their voice, speech patterns, intonations and word choices – is a huge leap forward in enabling someone to retain their dignity and their sense of self. This is really exciting technology – and of course its potential use expands much further than just people with MND.”

Stuart Moss, an IT Innovation strategist at Rolls-Royce, lost his father to MND on Christmas Day 2014. He started the Next Generation Think Tank earlier this year, alongside the MND Association.

Stuart said:

“This technology is the first step in what I hope will be many innovations to come from the Next Generation Think Tank.”

For further information and support contact our MND Connect helpline

mndconnect 0808 802 6262