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Facebook is reading minds while Amazon perfects text-to-speech

A Facebook-funded study has achieved a breakthrough in decoding speech directly from brain signals at the same time as AWS has made automated speech more realistic.

The study funded by the creepily-named Facebook Reality Labs was conducted by San Francisco University. Its findings were published yesterday under the heading ‘Real-time decoding of question-and-answer speech dialogue using human cortical activity’. It claims to have achieved breakthroughs in the accuracy of identifying speech from the electrical impulses in people’s brains.

The clever bit doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual reading of these impulses, but in using algorithms and context to narrow down the range of possible sounds attributable to a given piece of brain activity. This helps distinguish between words comprised of similar sets of sounds and thus improve accuracy, with a key piece of context being the question asked. Thus this breakthrough is as much about AI and machine learning as anything else.

At the same time Amazon Web Services (AWS) has announced a new feature of its Polly text-to-speech managed service. The specific announcement is relatively minor – the ability to give the resulting speech a newsreader style of delivery – but it marks a milestone in the journey to make machine-generated speech as realistic as possible.

When you combine the potential of these two developments, two eventualities spring to mind. The first is an effected cure for muteness without the need for interfaces such as keyboards, which would be amazing. The second is somewhat more ominous, which is a world in which we can no longer be sure we’re communicating with an actual human being unless we’re face-to-face with them.

The AWS post makes joking reference to HAL 9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but thanks in part to its own efforts and those funded by Facebook, that sort of thing is looking less like science fiction and more like science fact with every passing day.

 

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