April 21, 2017
Anybody who has ever felt any degree of scepticism at the idea of Bond villains maintaining secret lairs employing hundreds of workers that manage to keep their secrets to themselves may have suspended disbelief when news leaked this week of Apple’s plans for driverless cars, something the firm has largely managed to keep to itself for at least two years despite having a 1,000 people working on the project in a dedicated location. Facebook has its own secrets, by all accounts many of them the product of something called Building 8, which is a sinister idea in itself, until you hear what they have just announced. The head of the department that occupies building is a woman called Regina Dugan who has just revealed some details of the department’s work on an interface that will allow people to communicate with computers using only their minds.
The news was announced at this week’s annual developers conference in San Jose alongside other announcements on developments in augmented reality, drones and cameras. But nothing can beat the idea of a brain-computer interface (BCI).
Facebook expect that BCIs will allow individuals to communicate with machines and other people without speaking. Ultimately, they hope to develop a technology that allows them to speak using nothing but their thoughts—unconstrained by time or distance.
Announcing the development, Dugan claimed that the brain produces about 1 terabyte of information per second. However, through speech, we can only transmit information to others at about 100 bytes per second. Initially, Facebook expects that the technology will allow people to use their brains instead of a keyboard and mouse to input data, at up to five time current input speeds.
Facebook claims that the technology will be available sooner than we might expect and instead of neural implants, it will use optical imaging to measure brain activity, firing photons to measure such activity hundreds of times per second. It was not immediately clear exactly how this would work, but the firms claims it will initially require a sizeable headset.
Dugan said the technology would give people “the ability to text a friend without taking out your phone or to send a quick email without missing the party. This is not about decoding random thoughts, that’s not something any one of us has a right to know. You take many photos, you choose to share some of them. Similarly you have many thoughts. You will choose to share some of them. We’re talking about decoding words you’ve decided to share by sending them to the speech centre of your brain.”
In the longer term the technology would evolve to interpret, and transmit thoughts so that people speaking different languages could interact, according to Facebook.