Facebook wants to read your mind. At its F8 conference Wednesday, it revealed it has a 60-strong team of engineers trying to figure out how to read thoughts without the need for surgical implants, so that you can essentially type with your brain.
Along with the obvious privacy implications associated with the world’s biggest social network reading your brainwaves, one expert says that creating such a solution will require a major technological leap and take a lot longer than Facebook suggests.
At Facebook’s annual F8 conference in San Jose, Regina Dugan – the former head of the U.S. government’s advanced technology division DARPA and Google executive who heads up the top-secret Building 8 campus at the company’s headquarters – confirmed what CEO Mark Zuckerberg had hinted at in his keynote address the previous day.
“Over the next two years, we will be building systems that demonstrate the capability to type at 100 words per minute by decoding neural activity devoted to speech,” Dugan said. “Just as you take many photos and decide to share some of them, so, too, you have many thoughts and decide to share some of them in the form of the spoken word.”
Zuckerberg added: “We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about five times 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.”
Currently, systems that allow users to convert brain activity into text only work using surgical implants. Dugan’s team plans to develop a non-invasive system of optical sensors that can scan the brain up to 100 times per second.
The Facebook team has been working on the project for six months already, collaborating with scientists and researchers from universities including San Francisco, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory, and the Washington University school of medicine in St. Louis.
Using your brain to link directly with a computer has obvious benefits for many people currently incapable of communicating with the outside world, but for Facebook the benefits could also be commercial. The company has been promoting its Oculus VR platform at F8 — including the launch of a virtual reality social network called Spaces — and the new system could allow users to communicate and navigate inside virtual environments without having to use controllers.
Facebook knows that headlines saying it’s planning to read user’s minds will stir privacy and security concerns among the public. “This isn’t about decoding random thoughts,” the company told TechCrunch. “This is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain.”
As well as overcoming privacy concerns, Facebook’s engineers face huge technical challenges to get the system they describe up and running. According to Dr. Jason Taylor, a neuroscientist at Manchester University, the type of “brain reading” experiment we hear about today requires participants to lie still in an MRI scanner for an hour while watching a film or a stream of images of different types of objects.
Speaking in January after Zuckerberg first revealed his plans to work in this area, Taylor said anything which approaches Facebook’s stated goal “would take a considerable advance in technology.” He added: “I suspect that it will take some amount longer than the two years allotted by the Facebook job advert to reach the level of real-time communication of full-blown thoughts.”
Cover: Andrej Sokolow/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images