Think Facebook’s plans for virtual and augmented reality push the boundaries of how we interact? The social network is now working on technology that lets you type with your mind.
The company revealed it’s working on a “brain-to-computer interface” that will let humans potentially type five times faster with their mind than they currently can with their fingers. The innovation is part of a secretive sector of Facebook called Building 8, a unit that’s devoted to “moonshot” projects that are often as expensive as they are ambitious.
The projects were unveiled today at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., by Regina Dugan, who heads up Building 8. With Facebook’s mind-reading technology, people will be able to wear non-invasive sensors that will hopefully allow them to type at a rate of 100 words per minute by decoding neural activity devoted to speech. Dugan said the technology could be used to help the disabled, but it could also become a way to input thoughts and commands directly into virtual reality and augmented reality devices. On stage, she showed a video of the technology being used to help a woman with ALS type at a rate of eight words per minute.
“It sounds impossible, but it’s closer than you realize,” she told thousands of developers during the final talk of the two-day event. “And it’s just the kind of fluid, human-computer interface needed for AR. Even something as simple as a yes-no brain click would fundamentally change our capability. A brain mouse for AR.”
According to Dugan, the human brain moves far faster than anyone can talk, which creates limits to how we communicate. She explained that the mind is capable of producing around 1 terabit of information per second—roughly the same amount of data as streaming 40 high-definition movies every second. However, speaking is the rate of about 100 bits per second, or about the same bandwidth as an ’80s internet modem.
“Speech is essentially a compression algorithm and a lossy one at best,” she said. “That’s why we love great writers and poets, because they’re just a little bit better at compressing the fullness of a thought into words.”
Along with the mind-typing tech, Facebook is also working on a way to let people hear through their skin. By creating an artificial cochlea, Facebook is working on what it calls a “haptic vocabulary” that lets people wear something on their sleeve to understand words based on vibrations in their arm.
Prior to joining Facebook last year, Dugan led Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects Lab and before that ran the U.S. military’s R&D lab DARPA. She said Building 8 is modeled after DARPA, while building products “that recognize we are both mind and body, that our world is both digital and physical” and that “seek to connect us with the power and possibility of what’s new while honoring the intimacy of what’s timeless.”
“Your brain contains more information than what a word sounds like or how it is spelled,” she said. “It also contains semantic information that tells us what those words mean … Understanding semantics means that one day you may be able to choose to share your thoughts independent of language. English, Spanish or Mandarin may become the same.”
Facebook isn’t the only technology company investing in mind-reading. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Elon Musk is creating his own brain-computer interface with a new venture called Neuralink, which is developing a way to implant brain electrodes to upload and download thoughts.