Facebook Gives Rare Peek Into Secretive Brain-Powered Tech Unit
4/21/2017 5:58:44 AM
April 21, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
Approximately a year ago, Facebook launched a working group called Building 8. Although largely secretive, it was said to focus on hardware prototypes. Then Facebook hired Regina Dugan, a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) executive who had moved to Google (GOOG)’s Advanced Technology and Products team.
Wednesday, at Facebook’s annual F8 conference, the company talked more about what Building 8 was doing.
Hardware is part of it—Facebook would like to expand its revenue beyond advertising. One of the things Building 8 was working on is brain interfaces that allow interaction with computers. For example, they shared a video of a woman with ALS, who could not move or speak, but who was typing with her mind. She had electrodes implanted in her brain, which allowed her to move a cursor. She could type eight words per minute.
Facebook is working on a non-invasive system that would be far faster. “We have a goal of creating a system capable of typing 100 words per minute,” Dugan said in a presentation, “five-times faster than you can type on your smartphone, straight from your brain.”
What they’re working on isn’t mind-reading—not exactly. “Firing off emails while knitting or playing with your kids is only the first step. Our brains don’t actually think in text, said Dugan. When you think of a cup, you’re thinking of the object and the idea, not ‘C-U-P.’ The same technology could be used to read that thought and share it in any language.”
Dugan said, “Understanding semantics means that one day you may be able to choose to share your thoughts independent of language. English, Spanish or Mandarin—they all become the same.”
Which segues nicely to another technology Building 8 is working on involving communication through touch. Dugan shared another video. In it, a Facebook engineer used a special sleeve that had sensors and actuators in it. Per CNN, “It lets her feel ‘the acoustic shape of a word on her arm.’ The engineer has the unique feeling of around nine words, what Facebook calls a tactile vocabulary.”
“One day not so far away,” Dugan said in the presentation, “it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish.”
Dugan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg warns that any marketable products are still years away, but so far it’s hired about 60 scientists and academics to work on the project.
On his Facebook page, Zuckerberg said, “Our brains produce enough data to stream four HD movies every second. The problem is 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. 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. Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.”
Both voice-recognition software and external brain-control technologies already exist, but compared to what Facebook is proposing, seem simplistic. Certainly it would seem to have significant implications for people with neurodevelopmental diseases, brain injury or other central nervous system disorders, and the implications for translation seem clear. The real trick will be whether it has wider reach, or just allows people to like Facebook posts by just thinking about it.
It seems ironic that the company that has created one of the greatest distractions in history is working on technology that would require a great deal of concentration just to communicate.
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