Facebook Inc on Wednesday pulled aside the curtain on a secretive unit headed by a former chief of the Pentagon’s research arm, disclosing that the social media company is studying ways for people to communicate by thought and touch.
Facebook launched the research shop, called Building 8, last year to conduct long-term work that might lead to hardware products.
Regina Dugan, the head of Facebook’s R&D division Building 8, explained to conference attendees that the goal is to eventually allow people to type at 100 words per minute, 5X faster than typing on a phone, with just your mind.
Eventually, brain-computer interfaces could let people control augmented reality and virtual reality experiences with their mind instead of a screen or controller. Facebook’s CEO and CTO teased these details of this “direct brain interface” technology over the last two days at F8.
“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Dugan asked.
She showed a video of a paralyzed medical patient at Stanford who can type using their mind thanks to an implanted sensor. She went on to explain how Facebook wants to do this without surgical implants.
Building 8 only began working on the brain typing project six months ago, but it now is collaborating with UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Researchers who specialize in machine learning for decoding speech and language, building optical neuroimaging systems with advanced spatial resolution and next-generation neural prosthetics are involved.
Facebook is not the only company working on technology that could allow a direct brain-computer connection. Elon Musk last month launched Neuralink, a startup dedicated to developing a “neural lace” technology that could allow the implanting of small electrodes into the brain.
One difference between Facebook’s “type with your brain” concept and Musk’s neural mesh project is that “Facebook wants it to be noninvasive,” said futurist Michael Rogers.
“That’s a tough one, because the electrical impulses in the brain are very small and the skull is not a great conductor,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The nerve signals outside the skull that trigger muscles are much stronger, so reading brain waves noninvasively means filtering a lot of much-stronger noise.
“The existing ‘neural cap’ technologies that allegedly let wearers, say, learn to control computer games with their brains, are actually probably training them to — unconsciously — use their eyebrow and forehead muscles,” suggested Rogers. “Interesting, but not the same as typing with your brain.”
Zuckerberg emphasized that Facebook is taking the first steps toward development of these technologies, and it could be a lot time before they have practical applications.
“Having bold visions and making ambitious predictions characterizes some of today’s most regarded tech entrepreneurs,” said Pascal Kaufmann, CEO of Starmind. There seem to be no limits, and one can easily fall prey to the belief that everything is possible. However, climbing a high tree is not the first step to the moon — actually, it is the end of the journey,” Kaufman told TechNewsWorld.
“Despite some gradual improvements in speech recognition these days, understanding of context and meaning is still far beyond our technological capabilities. Taking a shortcut through directly interfacing human brains, and circumventing the highly complex translation from nerve signals into speech and back from speech recognition into nerve signals, I consider one of the more creative contributions in the last few months,” he said.
It is certainly an alternative to the brute force approaches and the unjustified AI hype that seems like climbing a tree rather than building a space rocket. Zuckerberg’s announcement describes a space rocket; it is up to us now to develop the technology to aim for the moon,” said Kaufman.
Michael Merzenich, designer of BrainHQ, professor emeritus in the UCSF School of Medicine, and winner of the 2016 Kavli Prize, said,
“Both of these technologies are well within reach. This kind of brain imaging has been used in academic settings for years, and scientists developed versions of ‘skin hearing’ devices over 30 years ago.
The real challenge is making this science practical. How can a brain be trained to learn to control these new devices?” he asked.