Brain-to-text technology under development at Facebook

The head of the company’s secretive R&D unit has unveiled projects that include the development of technology which could allow us to type with our thoughts and receive messages through our skin.

Facebook launched Building 8 last year as its R&D unit. It is intended for long-term developments that could lead to hardware projects, potentially allowing the business to diversify beyond reliance on advertising revenue. It is headed by Regina Dugan, who headed a similar division at Google, and was director of the Pentagon’s R&D arm, Darpa.

Dugan took to the stage at Facebook’s F8 conference in San Jose, California, to disclose two of the projects that Building 8 researchers were working on. She announced that Facebook wanted to make a reality new, more direct ways for people to communicate: through thought and touch.

One aspect of this is “direct brain interface” technology, which effectively reads the user’s brainwaves and translates these into text. This may sound impossible, Dugan said, but it is “closer than you may realise”.

While brain implants already allow some people – such as stroke victims – to type up to eight words a minute, Facebook aims to develop a non-invasive system that could achieve a speed of 100 words a minute; five times faster than typing on a phone. This would be achieved using an optical imaging system which scans the brain 100 times a second. That could allow users to send texts and emails without touching their phone, and could be useful for people with disabilities.

The brain-to-text technology would not threaten privacy, Dugan said, as only thoughts which the user choses to share would be shared.

Facebook has been working on the project for six months, and is collaborating with machine-learning and neuroimaging researchers from US universities. So far, Building 8 has formed collaborations with 17 US universities, including Harvard and Princeton.

Another Building 8 project revealed at the conference was inspired by braille: advancing the ability to communicate just through touch.

A video showed two Facebook employees talking through touch; one wore a device on her arm, and received pressure changes to her arm sent by the other using a computer program.

“If you ask [the receiver] what she feels, she’ll tell you that she has learned to feel the acoustic shape of a word on her arm,” said Dugan. She said that this technology could allow thoughts to be exchanged directly, instantly breaking down language barriers.

While Facebook concluded its conference in California, the UK’s Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, addressed social media representatives during a summit in London. As part of the government’s Internet Safety Strategy, Bradley called on social media giants, including Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Google to help improve child safety online.

“Social media companies have a responsibility to protect people who use their technology, and we want to hear what more can be done to keep children and young people safe from online threats”

Bradley added that the government was determined to make Britain the safest country in the world for young people to be online.

Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was founded in the 1950s by President Eisenhower in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. It has been central to the development of the internet, voice recognition software, and GPS.

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