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Breathing life into words

DC | ROHINI NAIR
Published Nov 30, 2014, 8:21 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 10:28 am IST
arsh shah dilbagi invented talk, a breathing device that converts breath into speech
Arsh Shah Dilbagi invented talk, a breathing device that converts breath into speech
 Arsh Shah Dilbagi invented talk, a breathing device that converts breath into speech

We’ve all spent an hour, even two, waiting for a consultation with a doctor. You may flip through a magazine, or agonise about what he/she will say, or even observe your fellow sufferers with a critical eye. But when Arsh Shah Dilbagi, a 16-year-old resident of Panipat, Haryana, found himself waiting in the reception room of his doctor’s clinic, he used his time far more constructively.

“I noticed a patient crying profusely. He had suffered a stroke, after which he had lost the ability to speak,” says Arsh, a Class XII student of DAV Public School, Panipat. The experience moved him, made him realise just how lack of communication renders a person helpless. He was shocked when he came across statistics reporting that being speech-impaired lowered life expectancy by 20 years on an average. “I think as long as a person is breathing, he/she should be able to enjoy life,” he says, of what he felt at the time.

 

So Arsh got to work on “Talk”, an alternative communication device for patients suffering from speech impairments due to conditions like ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Talk converts breath into speech, and Arsh’s invention made him among the 15 global finalists selected for the prestigious Google Science Fair 2014 (he was the only finalist from the Asia region), going on to win the Google Voter’s Choice Award as well.

Presenting Talk at the recently concluded TEDxGateway conference in Mumbai, Arsh explained how his unique device works: Talk features two modes — one to communicate in English, supporting nine different voices (male/female) suiting different age groups and a second mode to give specific commands/phrases — and will be priced for under $100.

While Talk may have won several honours (including the second prize at the India Innovation Initiative, Noida), for Arsh, the greater “prize” has been the feedback he received from patients who’ve tried out his device and been able to communicate with its help. “After working on Talk for around a year, I tested it on a patient suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and he was able to give a positive response. It brought a smile to his face,” recounts Arsh.
Then there was the email from the parent of a child suffering from a developmental disorder, who is waiting for Talk. “The letter read: My son does not talk, but your invention could let me hear him say ‘I love you’,” says Arsh.

These are the moments that Arsh cares about most, when he feels that he has done his bit for the world. When he was once asked what his goal is for the next five years, he replied, “I’ve always wanted to do something for mankind, something like ‘Talk’. But I wouldn’t restrict it to technology. It can be anything for a social cause — if it makes the world a better place to live, that is what counts.”

His next milestone for “Talk” will be when he is able to reach out to the 100 million people who cannot speak, and who will now be able to communicate with the help of this device. “In the future, I envision the device to be more intelligent and even more accessible,” Arsh says. Talk should be available to users by the end of 2015, according to his plans.

Of course, working on Talk is in addition to the commitments of his school curriculum — balancing both requires a certain discipline and Arsh has enough of that. “I start my day early, around 5 am. I go to school, come back around 1 pm. Then I study for a while, play for a bit and then come back and do my research. Work a little on making Talk better,” he explains, adding that he has started to think of Talk as his social responsibility.

His parents’ support has been instrumental in ensuring that his motivation never flags. “My parents are my mentors. They are my biggest strength and are very supportive of my decisions. They have always inspired me to do better,” Arsh says. A self-described roboticist who loves to “make things”, Arsh says that true innovation depends on how you view life: “Don’t ask ‘What should I make?’ Instead, ask ‘What should I do to solve a problem?’ When there is a cause or purpose behind what is being done, things will fall into place.”

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