Sunday, April 29, 2012

One Step Closer to the Human Mute Button

It is hard enough to communicate ideas verbally when you feel that language cannot adequately express your thoughts. Now imagine that there is a barrier to the fluency of your speech. For many people who have speech impediments such as stuttering, this frustration is a daily reality. Having a speech impediment can often result in discrimination for children at school and when seeking employment opportunities. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Stuttering Association (NSA), 8 out of 10 children with speech impediments are bullied[i]. Unfortunately, this harassment is likely to continue well into adulthood: it is reported upwards of 40% of people who stutter are denied a job or a promotion (NSA, 2009).

Image Credit: Weinstein Company

It is then no wonder that approximately 90% of adults and teens with stuttering disabilities have sought treatment to overcome stuttering (NSA, 2009). Scientists have recently developed delayed auditory feedback technology that, when coupled with therapy, aids in the fluency of their speech. These devices relay what individuals say back to them at a delayed interval of one-tenth of a second allowing the user to talk more slowly and succinctly. Although this technology does not address the social stigma of stuttering, it can provide relief from the symptoms and over time may help individuals who stutter feel more confident to speak by reducing their stress and anxiety.

Recently, this very same delayed auditory feedback technology has been utilized for distinctly different purposes by researchers Drs. Kuriha and Tsukada of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and the Technology Chuo Dai and Ochanomizu University respectively. They designed the speech jammer gun, a device that uses the same delayed auditory feedback technology used to help people overcome their stuttering when pointed at the speaker’s mouth. Only the effect of delayed auditory feedback on those who do not have a speech disability (when replaying their voice at a delayed interval of one-tenth of a second) temporarily disorients, confuses, and stops the person from talking. There is no physical harm during this period and normal speech can resume afterwards.

Image from (SpeechJammer, 2012)

In their paper “SpeechJammer: A System Utilizing Artificial Speech Disturbance with Delayed Auditory Feedback”[ii], Kuriha and Tsukada delineate instances in which they believe the speech jamming technology could be beneficial for society. Their stated purpose for designing the jammer device is to provide a solution to two generally negative outcomes of verbal communication: unavoidability and occupancy. Unavoidability is defined in their paper as a situation where a listener cannot avoid speech that has been initiated by someone else whereas occupancy is a limitation to speech where multiple people cannot communicate effectively if talking at the same time. While this idea is reasonable, their proposed use of the speech jammer gun as a solution may not be.

The speech jammer gun utilizes the concept of delayed auditory feedback to stop a person from talking, but it only works if the individual does not have impaired speech. In the introduction of their paper, the authors discuss how the speech jammer gun is a civil solution to occupancy. In their “the louder the stronger” hypothetical scenario there is not a productive turn-taking in meetings. Therefore, instead of establishing rules or civil manners as many adults learn to do, the speech jammer would be used to quiet the person in order to resume your point. The authors describe a second scenario, “imagine that you want seek a peaceful means of dealing with a loud person in the library, but you do not want to be too impolite in the process.” In this circumstance you could use the speech jammer gun to quiet the offending speaker.

The speech jammer gun is a large bulky object reminiscent of a traffic gun. How the inventors thought that this device would be a peaceful or passive solution to other’s rudeness is beyond comprehension. The object itself is far from inconspicuous and signifies the idea that you want the other person to stop talking, therefore the act in and of itself can be perceived as a combative or rude gesture. There is nothing passive about the idea. I do not have to guess what my future boyfriend wants to do if he kneels down on one knee and presents a Verragio platinum coutoure-0383 diamond ring to me after a romantic dinner and 2 years and 3 months of dating. Same concept applies to the speech jammer gun; if you are aiming it in my face you want me to cease and desist talking.

Could it be that the Kuriha and Tsukada conceptualized this device as a culturally-bound solution to issues concerning how to be respectful to elders and authority, when placed in uncomfortable situations of occupancy or unavoidability. According to Young People's Beliefs About Intergenerational Communication: An Initial Cross-Cultural Comparison[iii], in the Eastern countries surveyed, including Japan, young adults reported higher dissatisfaction when communicating with their elders, than their Western counterparts. Even with this conflict with the pervasive ideal of respect for elders and uncomfortable interactions with elders, would this situation warrant the use of the speech jammer gun? If so, this justification may not be as strong in Western societies where there is a higher sense of individualism than collectivism. In a country such as the U.S. where people typically do not mind speaking their mind what is the utility of such a device?

Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press

Sooner or later, noting that the trend in engineering is to taking hulky dinosaur technology and redesigning it to fit nanoparticle dimensions, this prototype, after further development, will probably go unnoticed when used. The implications of that possibility will more than likely lead to malicious usage. For instance, say I do not like chatty Kathy at work. I bring my nanosized speech jammer device to work on a day that she is to give a company-wide presentation. When she then proceeds to speak, I use the device and she begins to feel embarrassed and is therefore passed over for a big promotion. This and countless situations like it can arise, where people, unknowingly on the receiving end of the speech jammer, may feel the need to go to a speech therapist or doctor because they feel as if there is something psychologically or physically wrong with them. The flip side is that as more and more people become aware of the device through greater marketing and availability, people may become more paranoid about speaking at various engagements.

Several other ethical questions arise with this new form of technology. Are there even appropriate uses for such a technology either its present form or if it were to be inconspicuous? With a good marketing team this device could be sold as Godsend for introverts who want to command the attention of others in the room, or parents that want to instill discipline when rearing their children. Another possible unexamined ramification of widespread availability is that children and teenagers could take the device to school and disrupt classes and undermine authority. Who wants to see little kids running around with a mute button at their disposal? All of the aforementioned events are plausible, and the implications are as broad as the imaginations of its users. The inventors of the speech-jamming device intended this device to be a means for peaceful and passive intervention concerning speech, possibly without truly exploring the consequences of their invention. Ultimately, there was no serious discussion about how easily this device could be used as an abuse of power by a privileged few, or how it could be regulated. Although this technology is still in its prototype phase, the ethical implications need to be further examined especially if it threatens to encroach upon our autonomy in having a voice.

--Shezza Shagarabi

Neuroethics Program Intern, NBB Class of 2014

Want to cite this post?
Shagarabi, S. (2012). One Step Closer to the Human Mute Button. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on from

[i] The Experience of People Who Stutter (Rep.). (2009, July). Retrieved April/May, 2012, from The National Stuttering Association website:

[ii] Kurihara, K., & Tsukada, K. (2012). SpeechJammer: A system utilizing artificial speech disturbance. Computing Research Repository, 1202(6106). doi: arXiv:1202.6106v2

[iii] Williams, A., H. Ota, H. Giles, R.D. Pierson, C. Gallois, S.H. Ng, T.S. Lim, E.B. Ryan, L. Somera, J. Maher, D. Cai and J. Harwood ( 1997) ‘Young People’s Beliefs about Intergenerational Communication: An Initial Cross-cultural Comparison’, Communication Research 24: 370-93.

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