On Tuesday, Facebook said that they are making progress on developing a noninvasive wearable device that allows people to type using their thoughts, two years after the company announced its mind-reading initiative, A study regarding this technology published in the journal Nature Communications showed how researchers were able to use the brain-computer interface to decode speech directly from the human brain onto a screen.
Facebook Reality Labs, a division that studies long-term tech products and hardware, has been working with researchers from the University of California, San Francisco on the technology. The company sponsored an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco in which they built an interface for decoding spoken dialogue from brain signals. The results were published today in Nature communication.
For the study, researchers had worked with three patients undergoing treatment for epilepsy who had electrodes implanted into their brains. Researchers will spend the year testing the technology. UCSF researchers say the findings could help develop a communication device for patients who can no longer speak after severe brain injuries, including brainstem stroke and spinal cord injury. Facebook said that they didn’t expect this technology to be available to consumers anytime soon.
The work itself is fascinating as you might expect from the subject matter. Brain-computer interfaces aren’t new, but the existing ones aren’t particularly efficient, especially the ones that don’t involve drilling in your brain. Facebook’s approach relies on high-density electrocorticography, aka ECoG, which implants sensors on the brain and uses them to record brain activity. If the project becomes successful, the work will have important clinical applications as it could help patients to communicate who have lost the ability to speak.
Facebook hopes the technology would have a broader use enabling what former Facebook crazy-project chief Regina Dugan once called a “brain click.” It allows people to click through dialog boxes with their minds, and you create lots of interesting new possibilities for augmented and virtual reality. The is still very far to achieve, but it seems like a good time to ask whether any of this work should you know be done in the first place.
Facebook has also added a section on ethics its blog post on the subject, quoting Mark Chevillet, director of the brain-computer interface (BCI) research program at Facebook Reality Labs.
“We can’t anticipate or solve all of the ethical issues associated with this technology on our own,” Chevillet says. “What we can do is recognize when the technology has advanced beyond what people know is possible, and make sure that information is delivered back to the community. Neuroethical design is one of our program’s key pillars — we want to be transparent about what we’re working on so that people can tell us their concerns about this technology.”
Moreover, Facebook is not the only one in Silicon Valley company interested in the promise of brain-computer interfaces. Elon Musk is also trying to conquer this technology with its brain-computer start-up Neuralink which has made headway on its efforts in the space.
Earlier this month, the Tesla CEO said at a Neuralink event that the company intends to begin human trials before the end of 2020. Brain-computer interface would give us a lot of beneficial use, but they would also seem to carry with them a great risk of anti-democratic surveillance. It sounds good, a futuristic headset that reads our minds to let us click through dialog prompts is all well, but with great power comes great responsibility.