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Teen scientist’s revolutionary speech device could grant language to the voiceless

At age nine, Arsh Shah Dilbagi asked his parents for a puppy; they gave him a Lego kit instead. Undeterred, Arsh used it to construct a dog. Now 17, the tech prodigy is still building his dreams from scratch. His latest project is a smartphone-sized device called “Talk” that converts breath into speech, a boon for the developmentally disabled. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: a promising and affordable technology that could give voice literally to people unable to speak.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from India. It's part of our weekly series covering The Leading Edge of science.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI, Student Inventor:

    Hi. My name is Arsh Shah Dilbagi. I'm from Panipat, India. I love robots. I'm good at computer science and math. And I wish to change the world.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    He was 15 when he made this video two years ago, as a finalist in Google's Science Fair, with a smartphone-sized device called TALK that converts breath into speech.

  • COMPUTER VOICE:

    TALK is an innovative device for people with developmental disabilities.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    He is also savvy at marketing, abundantly displayed on social media.

    Here he is giving a TED Talk in Mumbai:

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    I felt that, as long as you are breathing, you should be able to live, truly live.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    He's always like to tinker, he says. When his parents gave him a LEGO kit, instead of a dog, there was only one thing to do.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    I made a little dog out of the LEGO kit.

    The very fact that we humans are capable of creating machines which can be more capable than we ever can be, that is fascinating. That's just like cheating evolution.

    Over the years, learned locomotion, how to control motors, how to put things together, how to make robots better.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    He learned to turn toys into tools. The idea for the speech device began when he accompanied his grandmother to the hospital, he says, and saw a severely speech-impaired Parkinson's disease patient.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    I researched about everything I could about all the speech impediments. That research went on for a long time. And after that, I decided, OK, there are problems that I found out with the currently available solutions.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    He says devices now on the market, like the one used by one of his favorite authors, Stephen Hawking, all require a laptop computer, they can be invasive, and they are, of course, expensive, well beyond vast majority of people, especially in India.

    He doesn't recall the actual light bulb moment, when the idea popped in his brain for a breath-driven interface, breath through either nose or mouth.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    The user has to give sharp bursts or long bursts from the nose, which are interpreted as Morse code.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    As he points out in his own promotional online videos, he had to learn how a machine learns as he built on the idea.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    I had this computation engine which could take in signals through a microphone, distinguish noise and normal breathing, a single exhale and a double exhale.

    Once I had that, I developed an entire library wherein those signals were put into Morse code and then into English alphabet.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    The next step, miniaturize the hardware.

  • ARSH SHAH DILBAGI:

    And this has a little speaker. And it just goes in like that.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    Some 35 of them are now being tested by users across India. Their feedback is expected by this summer, in the first step of a long, uncertain journey from prototype to an actual product.

    We showed the device to Ben Munson, a speech scientist at the University of Minnesota.

    BENJAMIN MUNSON, University of Minnesota: I have high hopes for him, but this device itself, I think, is going to be of limited impact.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    Munson said the TALK device requires far too much lung control and effort in a typical user a Parkinson's patient, for instance, couldn't muster. Nonetheless, he sees potential.

  • BENJAMIN MUNSON:

    It's extremely clever. He's marketing the Wright brothers' plane as the Concorde or something.

    But the fact is that we live in a day and age where you can see in your lifetime the evolution in different technologies going from the Wright brothers' plane all the way up to the Concorde.

    And this device very well may prove to be useful for a subset of the population with degenerative conditions.

  • FRED DE SAM LAZARO:

    More immediately, Arsh Dilbagi, like so many high school seniors, is focused on transitioning to college life. He's headed this fall to Princeton.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Panipat, India.

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