Facebook wants to create a device that can read your mind — literally. It’s funding research on brain-machine interfaces that can pick up thoughts directly from your neurons and translate them into words, the company announced in a blog post last week.
The short-term goal is to help patients with paralysis, by decoding their brain signals and allowing them to “speak” their thoughts without ever having to move a muscle. That could be a real public good, significantly improving quality of life for millions of people. In the US alone, 5.4 million people currently live with paralysis.
But Facebook’s long-term goal is to reach a much, much wider audience: The aim, it says, is to give all of us the ability to control digital devices — from keyboards to augmented reality glasses — using the power of thought alone. To do that, the company will need access to our brain data. Which, of course, raises some ethical concerns.
The Facebook-financed research is taking place at the University of California San Francisco. Scientists there published the results of a study in a recent Nature Communications paper. In a first for the field, they say, they’ve built an algorithm that’s able to decode words from brain activity and translate it into text on a computer screen in real time.
The human participants in their study — three volunteers with epilepsy — already had electrodes surgically implanted on the surface of their brains as part of preparation for neurosurgery to treat their seizures. They listened to straightforward questions (like “How is your room currently?”) and spoke their answers out loud. The algorithm, just by reading their brain activity, decoded the answers with accuracy rates as high as 61 percent.
That’s pretty impressive, but so far the algorithm can only recognize words from a small vocabulary (like “cold,” “hot,” and “fine”). The scientists are aiming to grow its lexicon over time. Importantly, Facebook also wants to develop a way of decoding speech that doesn’t require surgery. The ideal would be a noninvasive wearable headset, though that’s harder to build.
In the meantime, we have a chance to consider the ethical implications of this neurotechnology — and it’s crucial to do that,