“What if you could write with your brain?“. This is what Regina Dugan, head of Facebook’s R&D division, asked during F8, Facebook Developer Conference back in 2017.
Surely this would be a mind-blowing event if it happens. But we should rather say when it will happen. Because two years later technology and in particular BCI world has incredibly grown and is still doing it.
Getting rid of screens and controllers means fewer holdbacks for people who can’t fully use them. And this means more accessible technology. We’re speaking about paralyzed, blind or deaf people, that can’t use technology as a whole. Even if there are options like the screen reader or braille keyboards, the difficulties are still significant.
Dugan, during the conference, showed a video of a paralyzed patient who typed using his mind, thanks to an implanted sensor. What Facebook wants to achieve is to offer this but without a surgical implant, using BCI.
These faster, non-invasive devices they’re planning to realize will be shipped at scale, so everyone who needs them will have them easily. The head of the R&D division said “This isn’t about decoding random thoughts. This is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain“.
The device won’t decode every single thought that is on the mind, but only the ones a person wants to share. They will be turned into text, as soon as the patient feels the need to share them, as he or she wanted to speak.
Facebook is currently collaborating with UC San Francisco, UC Berkley, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The fields of research go from machine learning to speech recognition and decoding, through optical neuroimaging systems and neural prosthetics.
Going further, Facebook wants to realize a way for humans to hear through their skin. There already prototypes they’re working on, but no news about a possible date of releasing.
What these devices do is mimic the cochlea in the ear and translate the sounds into specific frequencies for the brain. This would be a great step forward for deaf people, who will be able to “hear” without using their ears.
There was indeed an experiment shown at the conference, where a team of engineers used a system of actuators tuned to 16 frequency bands. A test subject was able to develop a vocabulary of nine words that he could hear through his skin. This is without a doubt a great accomplishment, and it also means that the road to walk towards the final aim is not so long.
Of course, a mind-reading technology coming to life can be perceived as scary or dangerous. But, as Dugan stated, every technology considered now very powerful or harmful wasn’t built to cause some consequences. As with every device, it’s how we use it that is good or bad, according to our intentions. Technology, by itself, can instead foster empathy, education and a global community.