Facebook today unveiled a project from its secretive Building 8 research group that’s working to create a brain-computer interface that lets you type with your thoughts. Regina Dugan, a former director of DARPA and the ex-head of Google’s experimental ATAP research group, announced the news today onstage at Facebook’s F8 developer conference. Dugan, who now heads up Building 8, says the goal is “something as simple as a yes-no brain click” that could fundamentally change how we interact with and use technology. While it does not exist today outside of very specific medical research trials, Dugan says her team is actively working to make it a reality.
Dugan refers to the technology as a “brain mouse for AR,” meaning it could be an ideal way to receive direct input from neural activity that would remove the need for augmented reality devices to track hand motions or other body movements. For instance, the Microsoft HoloLens uses hand tracking to let you tap your finger in front of you as if you were clicking a mouse. Facebook’s theoretical device could also be used for patients with severe paralysis, acting as a “speech prosthetic” Dugan says.
Dugan stresses that it’s not about invading your thoughts — an important disclaimer, given the public’s anxiety over privacy violations from social network’s as large as Facebook. Rather, “this is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain,” reads the company’s official announcement. “Think of it like this: You take many photos and choose to share only some of them. Similarly, you have many thoughts and choose to share only some of them.”
Already, Facebook says researchers at Stanford have created a system for letting a paralyzed patient type eight words per minute using only her thoughts. However, that example is with an invasively implanted electrode array. The ultimate goal, Dugan adds, is a system that allows you to type even faster than your physical hands, at upwards of 100 words per minute.
Faebook has no plans to ever ship an invasive implant of any kind, so the company’s technology won’t be going inside the skulls of patients in need or any prospective healthy user of the technology in the future. “Implanted electrodes simply won’t scale,” Dugan says. “We think optical imaging is the best place to start.” Using neural imaging may be the only non-invasive approach capable of transmitting neural activity into inputs for electronic devices, Dugan says. This could be some type of cap you wear on your head, but Dugan adds that this technology does not exist yet and would have to be developed over the course of many years.
Facebook now has a team of more than 60 of scientists and engineers 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. The team is now actively working toward creating a prototype implant device over the next two years that would be tested in a medical setting, with the long-term of goal of creating a non-invasive commercial neural cap that would rely instead of brain imaging technology.