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Neuroprosthetic Speech: The Ethical Significance of Accuracy, Control and Pragmatics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2019


Neuroprosthetic speech devices are an emerging technology that can offer the possibility of communication to those who are unable to speak. Patients with ‘locked in syndrome,’ aphasia, or other such pathologies can use covert speech—vividly imagining saying something without actual vocalization—to trigger neural controlled systems capable of synthesizing the speech they would have spoken, but for their impairment.

We provide an analysis of the mechanisms and outputs involved in speech mediated by neuroprosthetic devices. This analysis provides a framework for accounting for the ethical significance of accuracy, control, and pragmatic dimensions of prosthesis-mediated speech. We first examine what it means for the output of the device to be accurate, drawing a distinction between technical accuracy on the one hand and semantic accuracy on the other. These are conceptual notions of accuracy.

Both technical and semantic accuracy of the device will be necessary (but not yet sufficient) for the user to have sufficient control over the device. Sufficient control is an ethical consideration: we place high value on being able to express ourselves when we want and how we want. Sufficient control of a neural speech prosthesis requires that a speaker can reliably use their speech apparatus as they want to, and can expect their speech to authentically represent them. We draw a distinction between two relevant features which bear on the question of whether the user has sufficient control: voluntariness of the speech and the authenticity of the speech. These can come apart: the user might involuntarily produce an authentic output (perhaps revealing private thoughts) or might voluntarily produce an inauthentic output (e.g., when the output is not semantically accurate). Finally, we consider the role of the interlocutor in interpreting the content and purpose of the communication.

These three ethical dimensions raise philosophical questions about the nature of speech, the level of control required for communicative accuracy, and the nature of ‘accuracy’ with respect to both natural and prosthesis-mediated speech.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the BrainCom Project, Horizon 2020 Framework Programme (732032). Additionally, Dr Pierre Mégevand, from Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung (167836).


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