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Technology breakthrough offers hope for people silenced by disability


WEBWIRE

Rolls-Royce has created new Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that will allow people with motor neurone disease (MND) to have a conversation in their own voice, even after they have lost the ability to speak.

Rolls-Royce and its data innovation catalyst, R2 Data Labs, has partnered with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and some of the world’s leading technology companies, including Accenture, Computacenter, 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.

Communication is one of the most difficult aspects of living with motor neurone disease, which affects around 400,000 of the world’s population and kills more than 100,000 people every year.

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 the late Professor Stephen Hawking. Currently, users type what they want to say, and the words or phrases are read out, often in a computerised voice.

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 and they 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 Motor Neurone Disease Association.

Stuart said: “Those with MND are often robbed of their ability to communicate with their loved ones, which can make the festive season particularly lonely and difficult. This technology will give people their voice back and is the first step in what I hope will be many innovations to come from the Next Generation Think Tank.”

About Rolls-Royce Holdings plc
  1. Rolls-Royce pioneers cutting-edge technologies that deliver clean, safe and competitive solutions to meet our planet’s vital power needs.
  2. Rolls-Royce has customers in more than 150 countries, comprising more than 400 airlines and leasing customers, 160 armed forces, 70 navies, and more than 5,000 power and nuclear customers.
  3. Annual underlying revenue was £15 billion in 2018, around half of which came from the provision of aftermarket services.
  4. In 2018, Rolls-Royce invested £1.4 billion on research and development. We also support a global network of 29 University Technology Centres, which position Rolls-Royce engineers at the forefront of scientific research.
  5. The Group has a strong commitment to apprentice and graduate recruitment and to further developing employee skills.


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