Facebook is building brain-to-computer interfaces for typing and skin-hearing

Facebook while in this year’s edition of its annual developers conference announced what could be tagged the company’s most ambitious, scariest and creepiest proposal.  Facebook wants to build its own “brain-to-computer interface” that would allow users the leverage to send thoughts straight to a computer.

 The head of the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, Building 8, Regina Dugan, dished out some explanations from the stage. In her words; What if you could type directly from your brain?” and in attempt to address that question, she went to show a demo of a woman typing eight words per minute directly from the stage. In a few years, she said, the team hopes to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute.

She continued, “That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “Your brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it’s spelled; it also contains semantic information of what those words mean.”

Similarly, during last year’s Facebook conference, Cheryl Dugan, head of Facebook’s moonshot division, Building 8, recycled a well-known—in BCI (Brain Computer Interface) circles anyway with a demo video of a woman in a Stanford lab moving a digital cursor with her mind. She did this to show that the bones of the technology that can give us mental control over our computers is already in place. She then pointed out that Facebook wants to take that technology and create a product to allow us to type with our minds. But by then end of this speech, Dugan built a warehouse of questions. First among them, why would Facebook want its users to mind-type? And only slightly less important, how do they intend to make that happen?

Mark Chevillet, the head of Building 8’s Projects, addressed those questions at last month’s ApplySci’s Wearable Tech Conference in Boston. There he made the intensions for this invention clearer to be For reasons of privacy or propriety. First citing the added advantage to voice commands and bringing to light the voice command feature largely fails in discretion.  “The value proposition is essential, can we give you the speed and flexibility that you’ve come to understand from voice interfaces, but with the privacy that you’ve come to expect with text?” A digital assistant that can literally listen to your thoughts, anywhere and at any time, and privately.

As to the how they plan to do it, Chevillet showed the same video of a woman moving a cursor with her mind then acknowledged that moving a cursor, up, down, left, right, and “click” is a far easier brain-to-digital translation than deciphering the complicated signals that turn thoughts into spoken or typed words. Then he pointed, as proof-of-concept, to work by Christian Herff, a computer scientist working out of the University of Bremen, that showed limited but promising results when it comes to translating thought to type. But Facebook’s goal is to achieve 100 words per minute, straight out of person’s brain, silently. When relayed to Herff in an interview, he was surprised, “Wow, that’s even faster than we talk audibly. Even decoding audible speech from brain signals is at a very, very early stage.”

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post, “Our brains produce enough data to stream 4 HD movies every second. The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world — speech — can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem,” also he said  “We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5x faster than you can type on your phone today. Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale. Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.”

The brain, though, is infinitely complex. Each thing we learn about it seems to lead to more mysteries that we have yet to understand.


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