Facebook has a plan to let you type with your brain

Jon Swartz
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At Facebook's annual developers conference, the social network revealed it was working on a brain-to-computer interface.

SAN JOSE — There's mind-blowing technology, and then there's brain-computer technologies.

Facebook’s “direct brain interface,” a creation of its secretive Building 8 division, could take tech-enhanced communication to the next level.

Facebook is exploring a silent speech system with a team of more than 60 scientists that would let people type 100 words per minute with their brain. "What if you could type directly from your brain... with the speed and flexibility of voice and the privacy of text?" Building 8 head Regina Dugan said at the second day of Facebook's F8 developer's conference here.

She noted the brain contains about 86 billion neurons and is capable of producing 1 terabyte of information per second. Think of a "brain mass for augmented reality," she said.

The brain-to-text project is a couple years away and would require new, non-invasive sensors to measure brain activity hundreds of times per second, Dugan told USA TODAY after the keynote. A speech prosthetic for people with communication disorders would likely be the first application. "This (project) could be as transformative as the (computer) mouse," she said.

While such a project represents a "huge leap", the implications could be unsettling to consumers, many of whom think Facebook knows too much about their daily habits and actions — let alone their thoughts, says Debra Aho Williamson, a principal analyst at eMarketer.

Facebook is working with scientists, engineers and system integrators from UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who specialize in machine learning methods for decoding speech and language.


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"This is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain," Dugan said. It would "be crazy amazing" but only a start, she said. One day, one may be able to share their thoughts independent of language.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has shown a predilection for telepathy, which he calls "the future of communication." Once virtual reality and augmented reality have run their course, he has theorized, a form of technology-enabled telepathy will help people capture and then share their thoughts and feelings with friends.

Last year, Facebook poached Dugan, who helped shape Google initiatives such as Project Tango (3-D mapping) and Project Ara (tools for building modular smartphones), to head Building 8, a research-and-product-development group considered vital to Facebook's 10-year technology road map.

Dugan's presentation highlighted a keynote devoted to Facebook's future projects in connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality/augmented reality.

More from F8:

Facebook's digitally enhanced future sidesteps ugly reality

Inside Mark Zuckerberg's vision for your Facebook augmented reality

Facebook’s futuristic endeavor is the latest to explore the human brain.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, last month announced the formation of Neuralink, a company that would merge computers with brains to keep up with artificial intelligence. In October, Braintree founder Bryan Johnson invested $100 million in start-up Kernel to build hardware and software to augment human intelligence. One goal is to facilitate communication between brain cells by hacking the “neural code” that lets people store and recall memories and information.

The implications for brain-to-text technology are mind blowing and cautionary, says Joshua Feast, CEO of Cogito, an artificial intelligence and behavioral science company spun out of MIT.

"This has the potential to be the most important application of artificial intelligence," he says. "All AI technologies should be applied as a win-win-win for humans."

"If not," he warns, "they can be scary and creepy."

Follow USA TODAY's San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.

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