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UCLA engineers unveil AI 'voice patch' to restore speech

A multi-disciplinary team of engineers at UCLA has developed a pioneering artificial intelligence device that could give voice back to millions of people suffering from speech disorders worldwide.



The researchers introduced a flexible electronic patch that unobtrusively adheres to the throat and uses AI to convert detected muscle movements into intelligible speech, effectively allowing users to "speak" without using their vocal cords.


Voice impairments stemming from injury, illness, surgery or other conditions can severely impact quality of life by hampering crucial verbal communication abilities. An estimated 30% of people experience some form of voice disorder during their lifetime.


Current treatments like surgery, implants or speech therapy often provide limited effectiveness and can be invasive or inconvenient. But UCLA's new voice patch aims to offer a non-invasive, wearable solution harnessing the power of AI and smart biomedical sensing.


"This device incorporates cutting-edge AI to essentially recode how speech is produced," said Sam Emaminejad, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who led the research published in Nature. "It could be life-changing for people with voice disorders to regain clear, audible speech without taxing their vocal cords."


The featherweight, 7-gram patch contains two main components working in tandem. The first uses a novel flexible magnetoelastic sensor layer to precisely detect muscular movements in the larynx, even subtle motions not producing audible sounds.


Signals representing these nearly imperceptible movements are captured and processed by an embedded AI model, which translates the neuromuscular patterns into the words or phrases the user intended to speak.


The second patch layer contains a compact speaker that regenerates those reconstructed words, producing clear synthesized speech that effectively bypasses any vocal cord malfunction or impairment.


In initial tests with eight healthy subjects, the AI voice patch accurately interpreted and verbalized short phrases like "I love you" with a striking 95% accuracy across hundreds of samples, based solely on mapped laryngeal muscle signals.


"The promising results suggest this technology could work well for patients regardless of their type of voice disorder, since it doesn't rely on acoustic audio signals," said Emaminejad. "It taps into the neuromuscular instructions from the brain that would normally control the vocal cords before any impairment intervenes."


The UCLA team plans to soon begin clinical trials with various patient populations suffering from voice impairments. They are optimistic the technology can improve lives while overcoming limitations of current voice restoration methods.


"Many existing voice aids like implants or electrolarynx devices can sound unnatural and require intensive re-training for patients who can't use their vocal cords," said Xuan Huang, a study co-author and materials science researcher. "Our voice patch overcomes those barriers through more advanced AI for real language mapping and sophisticated biocompatible materials."


The patch is primarily constructed from polydimethylsiloxane polymer, known for its flexibility, stretchability and biocompatibility with human skin. This soft, pliable composition allows the device to conform comfortably to the complex throat contours while precisely tracking underlying muscle activity.


Beyond treating voice disorders, the engineers believe their AI neuromuscular-decoding framework could extend to broader intelligent wearables that translate neuromuscular signals into computer instructions, effectively transforming the human body into a biological computer interface.


"From prosthetics to rehabilitative biomasks, this is just the first wave of devices that can decode neuromuscular electrical signals using large AI language datasets," said Emaminejad. "The possibilities could be endless for restoring human communication abilities and augmenting the the physical human experience."


While still in early stages, UCLA's voice patch breakthrough represents a major milestone toward advanced AI and sensing technology becoming seamlessly integrated with the human form.


If future clinical trials prove its efficacy across different disorders, the voice patch could usher in a new era of intelligent, unobtrusive devices capable of empowering those impacted by disabilities and physiological impairments once considered insurmountable barriers.

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