THE first speech aids to predict words and phrases according to individual conversations could help people with complex disabilities break out of social isolation, it is claimed.

Computer-based voice output communication aids (Vocas) use word prediction to speed up typing for users with a range of medical conditions.

The systems are similar to those used for texting and emailing on mobile phones and tablets.

However, Voca users such as Professor Stephen Hawking can face “extremely slow” communication speeds, making face to face conversation “very difficult”.

The systems can currently generate between two and 15 words per minute – 10 times slower than the speech rate of people without impaired communication.

It is thought that more than 250,000 people in the UK are at risk of isolation through an inability to speak.

Now experts at Dundee and Cambridge universities aim to develop the first Voca system capable of assisting extended conversation by predicting words, phrases and narrative elements according to the content of an ongoing conversation in a new £1 million project.

Rolf Black of Dundee University said: “Despite four decades of Voca development, users seldom go beyond basic needs-based utterances as communication rates remain, at best, 10 times slower than natural speech.

“This makes conversation almost impossible and is immensely frustrating for both the user and the listener.

“We want to improve that situation considerably by developing new systems which go far beyond word prediction.

“This does not mean that the computer will speak for a person.

“It will be more like a companion who, being familiar with aspects of your life and experiences, has some idea of what you might choose to say in a certain situation.”