By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
A little boy with autism says “I love you”—and you understand it. Your grandfather is able to say “congratulations” when you graduate—despite the recent stroke he suffered that impaired his speech. That future is almost a reality thanks to new Israeli-developed technology that can extract spoken words from the sounds of people with speech disabilities.
Danny Weissberg in 2012 co-founded VoiceITT, maker of the TalkITT software, shortly after his grandmother had a stroke. He describes her as “the center of our family” and says it was “painful” to know she wanted to talk, but was being prevented by her stroke from communicating.
Weissberg, who obtained degrees in civil engineering and computer science and had been working in the hi-tech industry for more than 15 years, began consulting with speech therapists and other related experts. Quickly, he realized the need for TalkITT—given that as many as 1.5 percent of the world’s population has a speech disability or impairment—and decided that with enough innovation, a solution could be created.
“The solutions that exist today, none of them actually uses personal or normal speech,” Weissberg, who serves as CEO of Ramat Gan-based VoiceITT in Israel’s Tel Aviv District, tells JNS.org. “They all bypass speech. Some even monitor head and eye movements. But none of them allows people to communicate in the most natural way: their voice.”
The TalkITT software works by creating a dictionary of sounds and associating them with meaning or words. The user makes a sound and associates it with a word on the software. The app recalls the translation for future conversations. Weissberg equates the process to how a mother of a child with a speech disability will learn to understand her child, by associating his or her sounds with meaning, and knowing what he or she wants when no one else does.
“Like the mother that makes that association, so too will the software. Once the software learns, then he is now not limited to talking only with his mother. He can speak to friends at school. Because the software can translate what he says for anyone,” says Weissberg.
Due to its functionality, the software would work for people who speak any language—English, Hebrew, or even the speech pattern of an autistic child who has invented his own language (as long as it is consistent). The software app can currently run on tablets and smartphones.
Matthew Arnheiter—vice president of innovations, research, and development for Netsmart, the country’s longest-standing healthcare information technology company—says mobile healthcare technologies like TalkITT have burst onto the scene since the iPhone came out in 2007. Before then, many new technologies catered to niche markets, were expensive, or were purpose-built technologies that were difficult to purchase and equally as challenging to implement.
“The phone makes it so we can do things easily and distribute them to the population rather quickly,” says Arnheiter, noting that today is “a better time than yesterday” for struggling with a disability.
Arnheiter says that with the increased focus on understanding the brain, the drive to reduce the stigma of some of these challenges, and the dedication to creating new solutions to meet the needs of people with disabilities, “we’ll figure out better ways of bridging the gap.”
Since launching, TalkITT has won many prestigious awards, helping it gain exposure and the funding needed to keep the project going. Most recently, the company, which has offices in Boston, won the Philips Innovation Fellows Competition. TalkITT is currently in the alpha testing phase, partnering with hospitals and other medical associations to get access to voice recordings of people with speech disabilities and to test them through the system. Next, the technology will enter the beta testing phase, when it will give the software back to these hospitals and associations and make it available for clinical trials.
“We applaud innovative technologies that open the door for individuals with disabilities to become more of a part of the broader community,” says Renee Dain—co-founder of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, which promotes the communal inclusion of people with disabilities—upon learning of VoiceITT. “Ultimately, these will change people’s lives.”
Once Weissberg perfects TalkITT in its current version, he hopes to perfect the solution for other, similar users. For example, he envisions that the next version of the software will be able to learn new words automatically—the user would have speech patterns that TalkITT picks up on, after which point the software would suggest words (“did you mean X or Y?”) and remember those words for future conversations.
Weissberg also believes that people diagnosed with degenerative speech disabilities, such as those associated with Parkinson’s disease or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), could begin using the software upon diagnosis. This way, as speech deteriorates, TalkITT would be part of the solution at an early stage.
“The software could learn and then speak in the speaker’s unique, real voice,” Weissberg says.
For now, Weissberg is traveling with his team around the U.S. to build new partnerships and increase funding. The company recently made a presentation in Maryland at the Israel-Adventist mHealth Innovation Forum, and Weissberg says he or his colleagues are willing to attend similar events to share their work.
Weissberg adds that he has many people working or volunteering for him who understand the need for TalkITT due to a personal connection to the issue the technology is addressing.
“It is a great feeling to be a part of something that can really change the lives of so many,” he says.
Maayan Jaffe is an Overland Park, Kansas-based freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.
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