Facebook-Funded Brain-Interface Study Publishes Results

Facebook has invested in university research with the goal of creating a device that can analyze brain signals. Two years ago, the company stated it wanted to develop a headband that would translate a person’s thought into typing, at a speed of 100 words per minute. Funded by Facebook, a University of California, San Francisco paper describes research, led by neuroscientist Edward Chang, into “speech decoders.” The research could demonstrate the feasibility of a wearable brain-analysis device.

MIT Technology Review reports that, in the UCSF research, “Chang used sheets of electrodes, called ECoG arrays, that were placed directly on the brains of volunteers.” The researchers then listened to three subjects — volunteers undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy — as they answered simple questions, such as rating, on a scale of 0 to 10, how much pain they were in or, in one word, stating which musical instrument they preferred.

Facebook revealed that the UCSF research is ongoing, with the goal of being able to “restore the ability to communicate to a disabled person with a speech impairment” and the long-term goal of a “wearable headset that lets users control music or interact in virtual reality using their thoughts.”

Facebook is also funding research on “systems that listen in on the brain from outside the skull, using fiber optics or lasers to measure changes in blood flow, similar to an MRI machine.” Such a system “could be enough to distinguish between a limited set of commands.” The company said it “plans to demonstrate a prototype portable system by the end of the year,” although it gave no details on its capabilities.

Facebook isn’t alone in researching brain-computer interfaces, and such technologies raise issues related to privacy. Elon Musk’s Neuralink hopes to “implant electrodes into the brains of paralyzed volunteers within two years.” But many people are leery of giving tech companies “a window into their brains.”

“To me the brain is the one safe place for freedom of thought, of fantasies, and for dissent,” said Duke University professor Nita Farahany, who specializes in neuro-ethics. “We’re getting close to crossing the final frontier of privacy in the absence of any protections whatsoever.”

Mark Chevillet, technical lead of the Facebook brain interface program, said, “we take privacy very seriously.” But Zurich-based ETH brain-interface researcher Marcello Ienca noted that, “brain data is information-rich and privacy sensitive, it’s a reasonable concern.” “Privacy policies implemented at Facebook are clearly insufficient,” he added.

Related:
Facebook Is Exploring Brain Control For AR Wearables, TechCrunch, 7/30/19