A research team in Facebook is working on creating a brain-computer interface that will enable typing through thinking. The news was announced by Regina Dugan, a former director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and earlier head of Google’s experimental ATAP research group. She now leads Facebook’s secretive Building 8 research group and said the technology being developed was a “brain mouse for AR”. It would work by receiving direct input from neural activity, thereby removing the need for reality devices to track body and hand movements. The device could theoretically be used as a speech aid for severely paralyzed patients and her team is working to make it a reality.
Dugan said that the technology would not be intrusive in reading people’s thoughts per se. It would have the capability of decoding words that the user is willing to share by sending them to the speech center of the brain. The company’s official announcement likened it to someone taking a lot of photos and choosing to share only some of them.
Facebook made reference to the fact that researchers at Stanford have already created a system for letting a paralyzed patient type eight words per minute using his or her thoughts with an invasively implanted electrode array. Dugan said Facebook’s vision was to create a system that allowed typing faster than was possible with hands, at upwards of 100 words per minute. Furthermore, their system would not involve any kind of invasive implants but rather neuroimaging initially and later perhaps graduating to optical imaging.
Facebook’s research team currently includes more than 60 scientists and engineers from academic institutions like UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, John Hopkins Medicine, John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The short-term goal is to develop a prototype implant device within two years that can be tested in a medical setting. This would be followed by the longer-term goal of creating a non-invasive commercial neural cap that would work using brain imaging technology.
Other companies are also making a foray into developing technology that could accommodate a direct brain-computer connection. An example is Neuralink, a startup launched by Elon Musk recently, which is dedicated to developing a ‘neural lace’ technology that involves the implanting of small electrodes into the brain. This is an invasive approach however, unlike Facebook’s.
Facebook is also concurrently working on another groundbreaking technology which would enable users to ‘hear’ through their skin’s sensory system using a ‘haptic’ vocabulary. This would have the potential to transform the lives of deaf people. The challenge is not so much translating data into a speech pattern but rather training humans to understand and process it according to Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman, CEO, and co-founder, has emphasized however that Facebook is taking the first step towards developing these technologies and that their practical application is much further down the road.