Today at F8, Facebook revealed it has a team of 60 engineers working on building a brain-computer interface that will let you type with just your mind without invasive impants. The team plans to use optical imaging to scan your brain a hundred times per second to detect you speaking silently in your head, and translate it into text.
Regina Dugan, the head of Facebook’s R&D division Building 8, explained to conference attendees that the goal is to eventually allow people to type at 100 words per minute, 5X faster than typing on a phone, with just your mind.
Eventually, brain-computer interfaces could let people control augmented reality and virtual reality expereinces with their mind instead of a screen or controller. Facebook’s CEO and CTO teased these details of this “direct brain interface” technology over the last two days at Facebook’s F8 conference.
“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Dugan asked. She showed a video of a paralyzed medical patient that can type using their mind thanks to implanted senors. She went on to explain how Facebook wants to do this without surgical implants. The plan is to build a more palatable device that can ship at scale.
Meanwhile, Building 8 is working on a way for humans to hear through their skin. It’s been building prototypes of hardware and software that let your skin mimic the cochlea in your ear that translates sound into specific frequencies for your brain. This technology could let deaf people essentially “hear” by bypassing their ears.
A team of Facebook engineers was shown experimenting with hearing through skin using a system of actuators tuned to 16 frequency bands. A test subject was able to develop a vacabulary of nine different words they could hear through their skin.
To underscore the gravity of such mind-reading technology, Dugan started her talk by saying she’s never seen something as powerful as the smartphone “that didn’t have unintended consequences”. She mentioned that we’d all be better off if we looked up from our phones every so often. But at the same time, she believes technology can foster empathy, education, and global community.
Building 8 already has job listings related to the project. They show its interest in electrophysiological data, and non-invasive neural imaging.
Facebook is looking for Brain-Computer Interface Engineer “who will be responsible for working on a 2-year B8 project focused on developing advanced BCI technologies.” Responsibilities include “Application of machine learning methods, including encoding and decoding models, to neuroimaging and electrophysiological data.” It’s also looking for a Neural Imaging Engineer who will be “focused on developing novel non-invasive neuroimaging technologies” who will “Design and evaluate novel neural imaging methods based on optical, RF, ultrasound, or other entirely non-invasive approaches”.
Yesterday during the F8 day one keynote, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook would share information on “direct brain interfaces that are going to eventually one day let you communicate using only your mind.”
Elon Musk has been developing his own startup called Neuralink for creating brain interfaces.
Facebook hired Dugan last year to lead its secretive new Building 8 research lab. She had previously run Google’s Advanced Technology And Products division, and was formerly a head of DARPA.
Facebook built a special Area 404 wing of its Menlo Park headquarters with tons of mechanical engineering equipment to help Dugan’s team quickly prototype new hardware. In December, it signed rapid collaboration deals with Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and more to get academia’s assistance.
Facebook has built hardware before to mixed success. It made an Android phone with HTC called the First to host its Facebook Home operating system. That flopped. Since then Facebook proper has turned its attention away from consumer gadgetry and towards connectivity. It’s built the Terragraph Wi-Fi nodes, Project ARIES antenna, Aquila solar-powered drone and its own connectivity-beaming satellite from its internet access initiative — though that blew up on the launch pad when the SpaceX vehicle carrying it exploded.
Facebook has built and open-sourced its Surround 360 camera. As for back-end infrastructure, it’s developed an open rack network switch called Wedge, the Open Vault for storage, plus sensors for the Telecom Infra Project’s OpenCellular platform. And finally, through its acquisition of Oculus, Facebook has built wired and mobile virtual reality headsets.
But as Facebook grows, it has the resources and talent to try new approaches in hardware. With over 1.8 billion users connected to just its main Facebook app, the company has a massive funnel of potential guinea pigs for its experiments.