By Alison Wilkinson & Kimberly Burnham
In 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hinted that the company could be working on a telepathic communication device. “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” Zuckerberg said. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like.”
During Facebook’s F8 developer conference keynote in April, the company revealed plans for a “brain-computer interface” which will be able to, at some level, read your thoughts.
“What if you could type directly from your brain?” asked Regina Dugan, who runs Facebook’s secretive “Building 8” project, during a keynote address at Facebook’s F8 developer conference. Dugan led Google's Advanced Technology and Products team which developed modular smartphones, 3D-mapping devices and smart fabrics. She left last year to start a competing group at Facebook. In 2009, Dugan became the first woman director of DARPA, the Defense Department's illustrious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency responsible for the technology that led to the global positioning system, the stealth fighter and the Internet. Dugan specializes in a singular approach to innovation that seeks to combine scientific breakthroughs with product development.
Regina Dugan. (Credit: Source.)
During the keynote, Dugan confirmed speculation that Building 8 has been working on a “brain-computer interface” for several months. Building 8 caused a stir in the tech presses earlier this year, when it began posting jobs for the project. It used intriguing phrases to describe the hardware project, which would involve “neuroimaging” and “electrophysiological data” to create a “communications platform of the future.”
Dugan described the goal of the project as “something as simple as a yes-no brain click,” referring to it as a “brain mouse for [artificial reality].” She told the crowd that Building 8 hopes to use neural imaging technology to help people type 100 words a minute using their minds. People generally type about 20 words a minute using their smartphones. Facebook's silent speech interface technology, which is still several years away, could aid people with
disabilities that make typing difficult. It could also allow people to respond to texts and emails without looking at their phones.
While the social media giant may not be developing this interface to read people's minds for more accurate marketing information, ethical issues, such as an individual’s right to privacy and concern about data mining, underscore the project. Facebook is trying to get ahead of these concerns by emphasizing that the technology will only be used to send thoughts people would speak out loud and share. “You take many photos, you choose to share some of them,” said Dugan. “Similarly you have many thoughts, you choose to share some of them.”
Facebook also announced it will put together an independent Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel to oversee the development of the technology.
In an interview with TechCrunch, Dugan was sympathetic to people’s concerns. “I’ve never seen a technology that you developed with great impact that didn’t have unintended consequences that need to be guardrailed or managed. In any new technology you see a lot of hype talk, some apocalyptic talk and then there’s serious work which is really focused on bringing successful outcomes to bear in a responsible way.”
She continued, “The flip side. . . is ‘why invent at all?’ and I just believe that the optimistic perspective is that on balance, technological advances have really meant good things for the world if they’re handled responsibly.”
The technology is already out there
Some brain-technology interfaces are already being used in the medical field for people who have intact cognitive function and emotional processing but are unable to communicate because of paralysis. In order to speak, muscles in the tongue, lips, mouth, vocal cords, and respiratory system need the ability to contract.
A 2017 study enabled four patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to communicate despite a complete lack of muscle movement. Researchers used a functional near-infrared spectroscopy to read changes in the brain. The person used an attention related process to answer personal questions with known answers and open questions requiring a "yes" or "no" thought. The spectroscope evaluated oxygen levels in the frontal lobe and was able to read their answers
correctly 70 percent of the time. Researchers noted that some of the errors might have resulted from decreased vigilance and attention as the process went on. In other words, they let their mind wander for a moment and the technology couldn't keep up.
Colorblind since birth, artist Neil Harbisson describes himself as a cyborg. For the more than 10 years he carried a computer around that "saw" the surrounding environment and sent vibrations to his skull. Each sound vibration represents one of 64 colors and Harbisson has memorized the relationship between what he hears and the color. It is similar to a toddler learning to name the colors he sees so that he can say whether an apple is red or green. Sixty-four colors includes a lot of shades of the six main colors on a color wheel, like the red of English Vermilion or brick red. Three years ago surgeons implanted the technology into Harbisson's skull with a wifi connector inside the chip.
Neil Harbisson. (Credit: Source.)
When applying for a passport, Harbisson insisted that his photo include his electronic eyepiece. "You're not allowed to appear on U.K. passports with electronic equipment, but I insisted to the passport office that what they were seeing was actually a new part of my body, an extension of my brain, and they finally accepted me to appear with the passport photo."
Harbisson on the changes in his life since surgeons connected him directly to a computer interface: "Life has changed dramatically since I hear color, because color is almost everywhere. The biggest change is going to an art gallery; I can listen to a Picasso. So it's like I'm going to a concert hall."
Whether your computer is listening to you or you are listening to the technology, Facebook, Google and other high tech companies are changing the world and how we interface with it.