April 21, 2017
At Facebook research unit Building 8, former Alphabet’s Regina Dugan is overseeing a project that will allow people to type using brain signals, the ultimate in hands-free smartphone communication. Dugan reports that, within a few years time, the system will be able to type 100 words per minute by monitoring the brain and without any implants. The technology may not require the person to think in letters. The same lab is also working on a way for people to hear through their skin.
Bloomberg reports that the system can already type eight words per minute via brain waves. “One day, not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish,” said Dugan, who adds that, “the power of the brain is much greater than what is translated through speech.”
She compared the brain versus speech to “four HD movies per second streaming over a 1980s dial-up modem.” She said that the system would also enable deaf and disabled people to better communicate. Elon Musk is also delving into this territory with the recently formed Neuralink and its plans to implant electrodes in the upload and download thoughts.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Dugan stressed that the technology, “wasn’t about decoding people’s random thoughts, which she said Facebook doesn’t have the right to know,” but that “Facebook hopes only to interpret and send the thoughts people would speak aloud anyway.”
Dugan showed a video of a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, who typed slowly with her brain, “through a project at Stanford University.”
With regard to the public’s concern over misuse of the technology, TechCrunch reports Facebook is creating an independent Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel to oversee its development, including the work being done at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins.
“They’re all held to the same standards as the NIH or other government bodies funding their work, so they already are working with institutional review boards at these universities that are ensuring that those standards are met,” said Facebook’s technical lead on the project Mark Chevillet.
Dugan added that, “None of the work that we do that is related to this will be absent of these kinds of institutional review boards.” In acknowledgement of the concerns over malicious use, Dugan, noting the ethics panel formed around the Humane Genome Project, said, “I’ve never seen a technology that you developed with great impact that didn’t have unintended consequences that needed to be guardrailed or managed.”