At F8, Facebook Debuts a New Platform: The Human Brain

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Facebook’s most advanced platform isn’t its newly business-focused Messenger or even its solar-powered internet drone. It’s the human brain itself.

The social media giant announced Wednesday at its F8 developer conference in San Francisco that its secretive “Building 8” research lab is developing technology for brain-powered smartphones.

Regina Dugan, the head of Building 8 who came to Facebook from DARPA, said that, eventually, it could let people interact with machines in unprecedented ways, letting them type by thinking and communicate through vibrations on their skin. The technology is still in its infancy, but the demonstrations during Dugan’s speech at F8 made it clear that Facebook’s in-house research is still much further along than you’d probably think.

“Your brain is capable of producing about one terabyte per second. About 40 HD movies are streaming in your brain every second,” Dugan said from the stage. “Herein lies the problem: How do I get all of that information out of my brain and into the world? What are my choices?”

Her presentation laid out Facebook’s plan for doing just that.

The neural work revealed at F8 fell into two basic categories: getting information out of the brain, and getting other information back in.

First, Facebook wants to find a way to get information from a user’s brain onto a computer or smartphone, hands-free. Its goal is to get good enough at interpreting information from the brain to be able to pull 100 words per minute — or about four times faster than the average person types on a smartphone with their thumbs.

Dugan, who also led Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects division, said in her keynote that getting access to that brain information in consumers is a long way out. Facebook’s testing, which included having real patients moving mouse-pointers with their minds or deciphering language out of brain activity, all requires intracranial electrodes (aka, brain surgery).

“And that,” Dugan said with dramatic understatement, “will not scale.” These newly revealed neural control technologies are very much a part of the 10-year vision Facebook was pushing for the entire F8 conference. Dugan mentioned that the company’s hopes for a sufficiently high-resolution, non-invasive neural electrode currently rest on optical imaging, which she then explained.

Make no mistake, however: neither Facebook nor anyone else has such an optical electrode currently working to nearly the level they will require.

Regina Dugan in a Facebook publicity photo.

Facebook Building 8

Facebook’s plan to get information into the brain is even more wild. Through a series of electrodes, the company hopes its neural technology can reduce language to vibrations that can be read by a users’ skin. So far, this ability to “hear” with patterns of stimulation on the skin also seems much closer to a real consumer technology.

The system uses braille-like stimulations on the skin to convey words. Facebook is trying to use software to separate sounds into component frequencies in much the same way as the cochlea of the ear, and then convert them to patterns of vibration that users can feel on their skin.

A “tactile vocabulary of about 9 words.”

In her presentation, Dugan claimed that one Facebook employee had reached a “tactile vocabulary of about 9 words,” which is simultaneously not that great and a really cool sentence. But this employee apparently reached her 9-word level in just a couple of hours using the company’s weird arm-sock embedded with electrodes system.

Dugan was careful to head off concerns about the abuse of brain-reading technology. “To be clear,” she said, “we are not talking about decoding your random thoughts.” Dugan compared how Facebook would interact with thoughts to how it currently interacts with photos.

Secretive though it has been, Building 8 has been known to be working on neural technology for some time, its basic purpose having been revealed by jobs postings, including for neuroscientists for “inception to product” design on a two-year turnaround.

Based on today’s revealed projects, that seems very optimistic indeed, and with its constant references to various ten-year plans for Facebook, the company has basically acknowledged how far out it really is. But even knowing what’s on the horizon is pretty darn cool.

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