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The zebra finch's vocalizations are similar to human speech, making it a favorite study subject for scientists. Photo: Gil Dekel / Creative Commons

A team of scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have built an interface that can peek into a bird's brain and predict the song it is going to sing "a fraction of a second before it does so," per MIT Technology Review's Antonio Regalado.

Why it matters: The discovery marks the first successful prototype of "a decoder of complex, natural communication signals from neural activity," the team said. They suggest a similar approach could be used to create a way for people to send texts, tweets, and more solely with their minds — an ambition of tech titans like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Findings from the team's report, published on the website bioRxiv:

  • The team: Timothy Gentner and his students at UCSD, with the help of Argentinian birdsong expert Ezequiel Arneodo, say they've successfully decoded "realistic synthetic birdsong directly from neural activity" of the zebra finch; a small, orange-beaked bird.
  • Their method: The scientists used silicon electrodes in the birds "to measure the electrical chatter of neurons in part of the brain called the sensory-motor nucleus, where 'commands that shape the production of learned song' originate," writes Regalado. Then they trained their machine learning software to match the neuron pattern to the song it produced.
  • The result: The team said the software can predict what the bird will sing roughly 30 milliseconds before it does so.
  • The human connection: Scientists use birdsong — which is complex and learned — as a proxy for human language.

Go deeper

DOJ cites discrimination in lawsuit against Texas over voting districts

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Justice on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas, alleging Republican state lawmakers discriminated against Black and Latino voters and has "again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans" when they approved new redistricting maps.

Why it matters: A DOJ assessment of the new districts found that they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

3 hours ago - World

Biden to warn Putin U.S. will add troops in Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

Putin meets Biden in Geneva. Photo: Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty

President Biden will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin when they speak on Tuesday that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank," a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: The administration believes it's increasingly likely that Putin will order an invasion.

4 hours ago - World

U.S. announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

An Olympic-themed sculpture in Beijing on Dec. 1. Photo: Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

The U.S. announced Monday that it will not send officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Why it matters: The diplomatic boycott — which won't prevent American athletes from competing — marks a major escalation between the U.S. and China amid already heightened tensions over the CCP's treatment of Muslim minorities, military threats to Taiwan and economic tariffs.