Type with your brain? Facebook's working on it

Illustration by James Bareham  The Verge

Building 8's leader, Regina Dugan, says both projects have been under way for six months and that Facebook will decide in two years whether they're worth continuing. The problem 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. Facebook has "a goal of creating a system capable of typing 100 words per minute, straight from the speech center of your brain - 5x faster than you can type on your smart phone today".

Dugan acknowledged some of these issues in her talk, which was laced with terms more akin to a science fiction movie or a conversation among physicists.

Some day, Dugan projects, this type of silent communication could have even more widespread benefits, such as not being separated with language barriers. "To be clear, we are not talking about decoding your random thoughts", she said. "Our goal is to create and ship new, category-defining consumer products that are social first, at scale". Ms Dugan says when we think of an object, our brains don't use the text, so nor should automatic should translation services.

Dugan stressed that the technology would not be used to invade your thoughts, and Facebook released an official announcement simplifying how it all works. Even a simple yes/no "brain click" would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.

Other ideas detailed at the company's developers conference in San Jose included work to allow people to "hear" through skin. Through a series of electrodes, the company hopes its neural technology can reduce language to vibrations that can be read by a users' skin.




Before joining Google, Dugan ran the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, devoted to developing technology for the U.S. military. "Of course", she said at the end of her keynote address.

"If you ask Frances what she feels", Dugan said, "she'll tell you that she has learned to feel the acoustic shape of a word on her arm".

Facebook isn't only planning to listen to your thoughts. They worked also with the knowledge that human skin is a 2 m2 network of nerves that transmits information to the brain. The speech interface, powered by non-invasive sensors that can measure brain activity hundreds of times per second, could be useful for people with disabilities, or to simplify the process of interacting with alternate and virtual reality. "Today we demonstrated an artificial cochlea of sorts and the beginnings of a new a 'haptic vocabulary, '" she wrote on her Facebook page.

The company already has 60 engineers working on the systems, including what Dugan called "a brain mouse", but is just getting started. Musk described his idea for brain interface technology, which he calls "neural lace", at Recode's Code Conference previous year.

The efforts take advantage of the enormous computing power of the human brain, which can stream 40 high-definition movies at any moment, Dugan said.

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