“What if you could type directly from your brain?”
That was the question Facebook executive Regina Dugan, who runs the company’s secretive research and hardware lab Building 8, posed to the audience Wednesday at the company’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose.
The question was not meant to be rhetorical. Dugan and Facebook are actually making technology intended to do just that.
Facebook is building what it calls a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface,” technology that’s supposed to translate your thoughts directly from your brain to a computer screen without any need for speech or fingertips.
The idea is that this technology will be able to take what you’re thinking to yourself in silence, using non-invasive sensors that can read exactly what you intend to say, and turn it into readable text.
Dugan says the idea is not that crazy. She showed video of a woman from a Stanford research experiment who could type eight words per minute using a small electrode implanted into her brain to move a computer cursor over a keyboard.
Dugan says Facebook’s goal is to create technology that could autonomously type 100 words per minute based on a person’s thoughts “in a few years.”
The goal is to “one day become a speech prosthetic for people with communication disorders or a new means for input to AR,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Even something as simple as a ‘yes/no’ brain click or a ‘brain mouse’ would be transformative.”
It is supposed to only detect activity in a very specific region of the brain where thoughts are translated into speech. “We are not talking about decoding your random thoughts,” she said. “That might be more than any of us care to know.”
But in order to ensure that Facebook is only translating the thoughts you want to share, the company says it will need to build new sensor technology that can better detect brain activity at lightning speed.
That tech doesn’t yet exist, but the company says it has over 60 scientists working on it now. Facebook also expects to create and ship these sensors at scale, thanks in part to miniaturization advancements from the telecom industry.
Reading the human brain isn’t the kind of technology announcement we’re used to seeing from Facebook, which makes truckloads of money advertising against user selfies and home videos.
But Facebook signaled that it had widespread ambitions last year when Dugan was hired and her new secret research lab, Building 8, was announced alongside hundreds of millions in funding. And Facebook spent the better part of its F8 presentations talking about its plans for augmented reality; the company envisions a world where smartphones will be replaced by smart glasses and keyboards may not exist.
Dugan previously ran the U.S. military’s research lab, DARPA, and then worked at Google before joining Facebook, and her work thus far has been kept private. It turns out that her plans for Facebook are as audacious as you might have imagined when she joined.
“Is it a little terrifying? Of course,” she said at the end of her keynote address. “If we fail, it’s gonna suck.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has not been shy about his scientific ambitions — but most of those have been linked to his philanthropic efforts, specifically a pledge with his wife Priscilla to spend $3 billion over the next decade trying to cure all disease.
In a lengthy letter published in February, Zuck made just a small mention of “accelerating science” amid lots of talk about creating global communities.
It’s the interface
Facebook isn’t only planning to listen to your thoughts. The company is also building technology to communicate with humans through their skin.
Facebook says its technology will act like the cochlea part of the ear, which translates sound into frequencies that are sent to the brain and decoded. Only rather than using your ears, Facebook says it will use your skin.
Though details on this project are slim, the social media company compared its new project with braille, which translates specific surface textures into words and is used by those who are visually impaired.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is also reportedly launching a new company that will work on brain-computer interface technology, called Neuralink. Musk described his idea for brain interface technology, which he calls “neural lace,” at Recode’s Code Conference last year.
Creating a wireless interface between computers and the brain could help humans keep apace with rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, which Musk said will cause humanity to “be left behind by a lot.”
Watch Elon Musk talk about his idea for neural lace: