In 2003, Pancho’s life changed forever. That’s when a car crash sent the 20-year-old farm worker into emergency surgery to repair damage to his stomach. The operation went well, but the next day, a blood clot caused by the procedure cut off oxygen to his brain stem, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak.
In February 2019, another operation transformed his life again. This time, as part of an audacious clinical trial, surgeons at the University of California, San Francisco, drilled a circular opening in his skull and slipped a thin sheet packed with 128 microelectrodes onto the surface of his brain. The device, developed in the lab of UCSF neurosurgeon Edward Chang, would listen in to the electrical impulses firing across Pancho’s motor cortex as he tried to speak, then transmit those signals to a computer, whose language-prediction algorithms would decode them into words and sentences. If it worked, after more than 15 years with only grunts and moans, Pancho would have a voice again.