Speed Reading and Sub Vocalization


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NASA research in subvocalization

Subvocalization is that little voice in your brain that says the words. Research on sub-vocalization is conflicting. The issue is whether or not a reader can actually avoid subvocalization and still understand what the eyes see. Currently the consensus seems to be that the reader must subvocalize at least faintly. If you want to experiment, try humming (hmmmm) like a bee while you read a couple of paragraphs.

The danger here is that the mind wanders. Have you ever read a page, reached the bottom line, and suddenly realized that you don't remember a thing you read. As your eyes moved across the lines you were thinking about something else. It is similar to a person who can type a copy of a business letter and talk to you at the same time. The text seems to go in the eyes and out the fingers without registering in the brain. The best strategy here may be subvocalize only the key words.

See online : subvocal speech. A somewhat fluffy article on NASA’s research on subvocalization analysis does an OK job of talking about what some of this means. Also read Neuromancer, Hardwired, and subvocal speech recognition system (via Boing-Boing). What is Subvocalization or this?

Nasa as developed a system to recognize subvocal speech: using sensor on your throat, they can monitor neural messages from the brain. Even if you are not making any sound (reading in your head or speaking to yourself), it seems that the brain is still sending signals to your tongue and vocal chords. Hence what you are saying to yourself can be recorded.

Speed readers try to stop subvocalization, but as a fictional device for a multitasking interface, it’s greatly useful. NASA seems to agree on the interface perspective and, as Cory Doctorow(remove 'links'), has developed a simple subvocalizing interface tool.

Just think about the possiblilites: silent speech interfaces that could type on your pda or laptop as you think,  controlling your computer without your hands, silently, or even (remove ':')  someone recording what you are thinking using hidden sensors.

The idea is to detect a person's "whispers" as a way to enable private speech input. It's called subvocalization. NASA has figured out how to do it.

Listed below are links to web-logs (blogs) that reference Subvocalization Becomes a Reality.

A lot of people have been trying to get this right from different angles, and it has a lot of implications. For starters, it is likely to make speech recognition quite a bit more efficient, at least from the false-match side. (I think people will have to learn to use efficient voice recognition online software. In conversation between people, there is a lot of nearly unconscious filtering going on - ignoring misstatements, grammatical correction, interpretation of pauses, tone, inflection, interaction between inflection and quite high-level inferences in what is said, etc. People are very used to using these clues, and learning to use very literal-minded online software, even when accurate, will require learning too.)

That said, there is an enormous amount to be said about this research. If it is commercially useful, not only will voice recognition take off, but interrogation - be that what one normally thinks of as such, or just a chat with your boss - can become extremely invasive. The required physical contact will go away - surface deformation sensors using lasers are becoming quite good, and all of the money going into facial recognition will help it target.

If this all works out, I wonder if we’ll start seeing training classes in the art of thinking without subvocalising.

The technology could improve the adoption rate of speech recognition systems as well. As mentioned in the article, since the speech recognition is done over “silent signals", noise, traditionally a significant problem for Speech-To-Text (STT) systems, wouldn’t be such a big factor anymore when it comes to speech recognition accuracy: we could see huge improvements on this aspect with such a technology, driving adoption. This could tremendously improve the life of handicapped people. Moreover, subvocalization, apart from reducing the number of loud cell phone users, would also make it more socially acceptable to “talk” to your computer, which has also been seen as an obstacle to STT system adoption: people tend to feel embarrassed while trying to get their computer to understand what they’re saying in front of coworkers for example.

MacDevCenter has a detailed article on Speech recognition and synthesis in Mac OS. They have a short paragraph on why human-computer interaction via the speech medium isn’t more successful but they fail to mention that without subvocalization, it’s fairly difficult to interact with your computer by talking to it when you’re not the only person in the room…

I also wonder if the technology would help people with speech disabilities. I don’t think that this would do any good for people who were born mute since they probably don’t know how to subvocalize (but I don’t really know anything about that so…). If STT accuracy is near perfect, then you could think of coupling the STT system to a Text-To-Speech (TTS) system performing synthesis of subvocal words thus giving back the gift of speech to those who lost it. Will this work with people with speech defects? I don’t know but I think the system has lots of potential.

Obviously, the technology is still very much in its infancy but, according to NASA (the developer of the technology): the team plans to build a dictionary of English words recognizable by speech recognition software. Next, we need speaker implants which would be the counterpart to subvocalize technology: a speaker system that would vibrate jaw bones or maybe eardrums directly to allow you to listen to things in perfect confidentiality!


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