In the future, you can send a text to a friend without taking your hands off what you're doing. How? By typing directly with your brain.
At least, that's how Facebook envisions the technology it is developing. Facebook has revealed its ongoing research on "silent speech system" during the second day of the Facebook F8 developer conference.
This is in line with the company's move toward the development of virtual reality and augmented reality. Not surprisingly, Facebook has also unveiled its concept products for AR and VR use.
Typing With Your Brain
"So what if you could type directly from your brain?"
This is the thought-provoking question posed by Regina Dugan, vice president of engineering and head of Building 8, the research and development department of Facebook, during her keynote speech at the F8 developer conference.
Dugan revealed that Facebook has 60 people working on a technology that will soon tap into people's brains, decode the signals related to speech, then type these words instantly. This technology, dubbed the "silent speech system," can type up to 100 words per minute. For comparison, the average typing speed is 40 words per minute.
And all this technology without any invasive surgical procedure.
Dugan, a former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and her team are neck-deep in work researching the use of optical imaging (via lasers capturing changes in the speech-associated neurons) to decode brain signals and translate them into words, which are then transmitted to other people. Think of texting via telepathy.
For this project, Facebook is collaborating with various academic and scientific institutions such as UC San Francisco, Johns Hopkins Medicine, UC Berkeley, Washington University School of Medicine, and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
This idea isn't exactly novel or new. Stanford University researchers have been working on brain-to-computer technology that enables paralyzed people to type via their brains using electrodes implanted in their brains. This can help people with ALS and spinal cord injuries.
This effort by Facebook is another one in the line of Silicon Valley companies trying to push the envelope when it comes to technology and the human body. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has recently announced that he founded a company that wants to fuse computers with the human brain. Google also has a science division called Verily that is working on high-tech contact lenses.
What About Privacy?
This technology may sound amazing but it can also be scary. After all, people will let a company that makes its money from mining user data get a free pass into their minds, the very sanctuary of their private thoughts.
However, Facebook was quick to assuage this privacy concern; the company likened it to the kind of information we share online.
"This isn't about decoding your random thoughts. Think of it like this: You take many photos and choose to share only some of them. Similarly, you have many thoughts and choose to share only some of them," wrote Facebook in its F8 blog.
Dugan also described the technology as a mode of communication "with the convenience of voice and the privacy of text."
Hearing With Your Skin
This brain-typing technology could soon make conventional interfaces obsolete, as there won't be a need for one as the brain will pretty much do the typing. Thus, this tech could be the foundation of Facebook's move toward a future filled with augmented and virtual reality. The "brain mouse," as Dugan called it, will soon control the text input in this AR-led future.
So if you can send via your brain, how can your recipient receive it? Via brain, too?
According to Facebook, through your skin.
Dugan explained that we have 2 square meters (21.5 square feet) of skin in the body "packed with sensors" that are wired to the brain via nerves. Referring to the intuitive function of the Braille system for the blind, Facebook wants to translate electronic messages into signals that can be transmitted through the skin, then translated by the brain.
"Today we demonstrated an artificial cochlea of sorts and the beginnings of a new a 'haptic vocabulary,'" Dugan said.