Facebook announced last week that it is researching and developing a neural interface that would allow people to “type” using their brains instead of their fingers. Users could type 100 words per minute with a silent speech system, enabling paralysis patients to communicate more efficiently with the world around them.
The neural interface system would not broadcast a user’s every thought onto the platform. Rather, it would work with the user’s thought process by sharing or typing only what he or she commands it to.
“This is about decoding those words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain,” a Facebook newsroom blog post about its F8 2017 ‘future of technology’ event said. “We want to do this with non-invasive, wearable sensors that can be manufactured at scale.”
The neuroscience behind this technological advancement has existed for over 10 years now, Dr. Henry Mahncke, the CEO of Posit Science, said in an interview with MediaFile.
Dr. Mahncke, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from University of California San Francisco (UCSF), studies and creates “software based brain training programs.” These training programs test for brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself at any age or any condition.
“The brain is not fixed like a computer chip; it is constantly rebuilding and reorganizing itself,” Dr. Mahncke said. “When you learn to play piano, you are literally rewiring your brain. Everything you do or learn causes those changes.”
Dr. Mahncke explained that Facebook’s project does not want to open up a user’s skull to implant some sort of device, but would instead use a device to read his or her thoughts with a sensor. This kind of technology uses Near Infrared light (NIR) and a sensitive camera to focus on a specific part of the brain to detect activity. According to Dr. Mahncke, the camera would make “strong guesses” on what you were thinking by penetrating your skull with a particular wavelength of light.
“I think we’ve entered a time where a lot of basic research of neuroscience is being realized,” Dr. Mahncke said. “Now it’s not just in a research setting, there are real world applications for it. We are entering a really fun and exciting age of applied neuroscience.”
Dr. Mahncke also said that social media is here to stay, and believes we will create many more ways to share information in social media in the years to come. He added that the future of science and media are linked, but said it was hard to predict which will “win” and advance faster. He is excited to see the results, when or if Facebook lets this technology loose to the market.
“One thing that interests me about these technologies [is that] there is a brain training component of them. A person is going to need to learn to control their brain activity in order for the camera to read them accurately. You will end up teaching yourself to organize your brain activity so the machine can read them most accurately. It’s another way we have begun to adapt how we think to make it easier for the machines around us to work with us.”
Facebook has been slowly moving from functioning as just a social media website to functioning as a technology company as its impact and innovation grows. Its innovations now have weight and legitimacy akin to Apple Inc. and other major technology influencers. With this potential technology, the way we communicate could change drastically in unforeseen ways. To Dr. Mahncke, what Facebook has begun to do is a “neat next step in human cultural evolution in parallel with technological development.”