Pay attention to Silicon Valley long enough, and you’ll become all too familiar with its pie-in-the-sky ideas and sweeping claims about the future. Rarely do the technology world’s most incredible concepts become actual world-changing products (we’re looking at you, flying cars). But if you ask Regina Dugan, Facebook’s vice president of engineering and head of its secretive Building 8, the future is full of revolutionary technologies that will enable us to communicate without typing keys, tapping screens, or even talking.
Dressed in a dark Steve Jobs-like turtleneck, Dugan announced Wednesday that Facebook has a team of 60 people working on a computer interface powered by the human brain. The system would be capable of “typing” 100 words per minute by decoding users’ neural activity, which is five times faster than we’re able to type on smartphones. Facebook says the technology could be useful as an input tool for augmented reality (AR) devices, or as an aide for people with communication disorders.
Facebook’s so-called “silent speech interface” is one of several futuristic ideas the social media giant discussed during its annual F8 conference this week. The company also demonstrated a system that could enable people to “experience” sound by feeling it through their skin. And Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Facebook-owned Oculus Research, laid out the company’s vision for AR glasses that could blend the real world with digital information.
Facebook’s far-out projects are the latest efforts by a major Silicon Valley company to push the boundaries of human capabilities through technology. Google parent company Alphabet has a life sciences division called Verily, which is working on projects like high-tech contact lenses that can measure wearers’ glucose levels. Apple is said to be working on a similar project. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, meanwhile, is backing a company working on ways to link the human brain with technology.
None of these projects will be ready any time soon. One major roadblock? The technology to power them doesn’t exist yet. To develop its brain interface system, for instance, Facebook would need non-invasive sensors that can measure brain activity quickly and accurately through hair, skin, and the human skull. Today’s optical imaging sensors aren’t fast enough to enable the type of experience the Building 8 team is trying to create, Dugan said Wednesday.
Still, if they ever become real, these kinds of innovations could very literally change the world. Dugan argues that the ability to express thoughts in new ways could change the very way we communicate with one another, opening a fascinating can of philosophical worms. “Brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like or how it is spelled,” said Dugan during the keynote. “After all word is just a compressed thought.”
Not everybody will share Dugan’s enthusiasm for these projects. Technophobes and privacy advocates will almost certainly balk at the ideas. It’s also unclear how many people will be willing to link their brain to Facebook’s software - especially given that Facebook’s advertising-centric business model involves learning as much as possible about each of its users. Dugan herself acknowledged some of these potential concerns on Wednesday. “We are not talking about decoding random thoughts,” said Dugan. “It’s not something any of us should have a right to know.”
Ultimately, Facebook’s futuristic projects look like an effort to hedge its bets about technology’s future. It’s impossible for anyone to tell what kinds of tech we’ll be using in 50, 20, or even 10 years. So Facebook may be experimenting with lots of different ideas, just in case one takes off. And given that today’s radical ideas can turn into tomorrow’s everyday reality, by the time they’re ready, some of these projects may not seem so crazy.