A couple of years ago, Facebook announced that its research lab was working on a brain-computer interface (BCI) that would allow users to type “by simply imagining themselves talking.” It won’t involve placing chips inside your brain to read your thoughts. Instead, it would build a “non-invasive” wearable device such as augmented reality (AR) glasses that let you interact with others without having to pick up your smartphone and manually type the text.
The social networking giant has shared exciting details on the project. The brain-computer interface would eventually let you type 100 words per minute right from your brain. That’s about five times faster than an average person’s typing speed on a smartphone. Facebook Reality Labs has been working with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). On Tuesday, the UCSF scientists shared their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
The UCSF researchers are working with three epilepsy patients to help them speak again by detecting their speech from brain activity in real-time. Researchers temporarily implanted high-density electrocorticography (ECoG) arrays into the brains of epilepsy patients analyze their brain activity.
Then researchers asked patients nine simple questions such as “When do you want me to check back on you?” and “How is your room currently?” As patients answered these questions out loud, the algorithms were able to decode their speech directly from the brain activity onto a computer screen in real-time with 76% accuracy.
Facebook acknowledged that the brain-computer interface is still in its infancy. It would take years before the company could build AR glasses capable of reading your mind and letting you type accurately just by thinking. The company is funding UCSF’s effort to help people with speech impairment communicate easily.
Over the next several years, Facebook wants to build a wearable headset that would allow users to interact with one another using their thoughts. It will let users “maintain eye contact and retrieve useful information and context without ever missing a beat,” the company said in a blog post.
Facebook wants its wearable headset to be “non-invasive,” so it has been investing in technologies that can monitor your brain activity from outside the skull using laser or fiber optics. The company noted that being able to recognize even a small number of imagined commands such as ‘home,’ ‘delete,’ and ‘select’ will give users new ways to interact with AR and VR devices.
The Mark Zuckerberg-led company plans to show off a prototype system towards the end of this year. Facebook hasn’t revealed how it would measure brain activity.
Facebook is not the only company working to connect your brain with computers. Billionaire Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink shared earlier this month how it would connect your brain to computers. Neuralink aims to make inserting electrodes in your brain as simple and painless as Lasik surgery. It has demonstrated the ability to transmit data from an experimental rat’s brain to a computer.
Only time will tell whether consumers will be comfortable enough to share their thoughts with Facebook, which has a terrible track record when it comes to user privacy and security. Last week, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook with a $5 billion penalty for failing to protect user data and lying to users that its facial recognition technology was turned off by default.
The data breaches and privacy scandals have tarnished Facebook’s image. Also, users have become increasingly conscious about the privacy of their online activities. Facebook’s brain-computer interface (BCI) could give it access to what you think, which would be a serious violation of privacy. It could collect data on your thoughts, dreams, fantasies, and more.
The social networking giant said all the brain data collected at the University of California, San Francisco would remain at the university, though Facebook employees would go there to analyze it. Facebook has said on numerous occasions that it’s very serious about user privacy, but its track record of exactly opposite of what it says.