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Making Someone Shut Up Is Easy with SpeechJammer


It sounds like something from a sci fi movie, but it’s for real. That something is called SpeechJammer, a device invented by two researchers in Japan that can make a person shut up in mid-sentence. Although the SpeechJammer does not make people stop talking permanently, it does make them shut up and become incapable of finishing their sentence.


One painless zap and silence is golden

As soon as one hears about a device that can make people shut up, it’s hard not to imagine all the individuals you might want to target: your children, mother-in-law, spouse, coworkers, boss, and all the annoying people on cell phones in public places who broadcast their intimate details.

The two inventors—Kazutaka Kurihara, a media interaction research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology; and Koji Tsukada, assistant professor at Ochanomizu University—did not list any of these reasons for creating the two prototypes of the SpeechJammer, however.

Instead, the creators noted that by making “speech difficult for some people,” the device might “bring meaningful changes to communication patterns in discussions.”

How SpeechJammer works

The SpeechJammer works by using a person’s own words against him or her. That is, the device projects back to the speaker “their own utterances at a delay of a few hundred milliseconds.” This delayed feedback, known as the principle of Delayed Auditory Feedback (DAF), disrupts the process that occurs in the brain that helps people maintain their flow of words.

And the result is confusion, immediately followed by stuttering or silence. That silence is not permanent, nor does the “zap” of the SpeechJammer cause the target any physical discomfort.

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The fact that the SpeechJammer can actually cause someone to stutter is interesting because Delayed Auditory Feedback has another application: helping people who stutter improve their fluency.

In a new study in Medical Science Monitor (January 2012), researchers reported on the use of DAF and Frequency-shifted Auditory Feedback (FAF) in 335 patients with speech disfluency (stuttering). The patients used a device called a Digital Speech Aid (DSA), which utilizes DAF and FAF.

Immediate improvement was seen in 82.1% of patients during reading, 84.5% during dialogue, and in 81.2% during monologue. Other studies suggest DAF can be helpful in reducing or even eliminating stuttering, and the technique is used by patients and therapists to improve speech fluency.

A demonstration of the prototype SpeechJammer, which looks like a black cube mounted on a handle, can be seen on Kurihara’s website. Two examples of the device in action are demonstrated: one in which a person on a cell phone is zapped; another in which a lecturer is stopped in his tracks when his talk has gone over the time limit.

When the creators of SpeechJammer tested their device, they discovered that it was more successful at jamming the speech of someone who was reading news out loud than it was at disrupting a “spontaneous monologue.” The device also did not stop meaningless sounds, like an extended “Ahhh.”

The inventors of the SpeechJammer noted that their device “points the way to promising future research relating to discussion dynamics,” and that may be true. They also promised to “conduct detailed evaluation of the system to clarify the relationships between various parameters of the system and its effect on the level of artificial stuttering.”

However, one can only wonder what the SpeechJammer would be like in the hands of the general public, who could make someone shut up very easily with a painless zap.

Kurihara K, Tsukada K. SpeechJammer: A system utilizing artificial speech disturbance with delayed auditory feedback. arXIV 1202.6106v1[cs.HC]
Prasse JE, Kikano GE. Stuttering: an overview. Am Fam Physician 2008 May 1; 77(9): 1271-76
Ratynska J et al. Immediate speech fluency improvement after application of the Digital Speech Aid in stuttering patients. Med Sci Monit 2012 Jan; 18(1): CR9-12