Facebook out to read minds

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Such brain-computer interface technology now involves implanting electrodes, but Facebook wants to use optical imaging to eliminate the need to surgically intrude on brains, according to Dugan.

Regina Dugan, VP of Engineering and head of Building 8, outlined those projects in an F8 keynote.

Facebook is working on ambitious new technology that will let you type words directly from your brain and even "hear" through your skin.

Details were relatively scant as to what this would really look like, though a Stanford University experiment Dugan referenced relied on "an array of electrodes the size of a pea" implanted inside the subject's brain. We only share some of those thoughts as speech, which Dugan describes as essentially a compression algorithm.

[Screenshots: Facebook] The second project Dugan discussed is Project: Hear With Your Skin.

The technology was still a few years away.

Last year, Facebook poached Dugan, who helped shape Google initiatives such as Project Tango (3-D mapping) and Project Ara (tools for building modular smartphones), to head Building 8, a research-and-product-development group considered vital to Facebook's 10-year technology road map.

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Such a device-a headband or some sort of cap-could be useful to people who are so severely paralyzed that they can't communicate.

Brain-computer interfaces are nothing new.

The project, in its early stages, will require new technology to detect brainwaves without needing invasive surgery. This is about decoding the words you've already chose to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain.

On the other hand, this kind of technology does involve Facebook having direct access to the brain, which might make a lot of people uncomfortable to even think about. One goal is to facilitate communication between brain cells by hacking the "neural code" that lets people store and recall memories and information.

Now the Facebook researchers are exploring whether it's possible to figure out what someone wants to say by detecting signals outside the brain and then translating it into text.

For Facebook, the question seems to be far from speculative. Facebook is hoping to replicate what the cochlea in your ear does-takes sound and separates into frequencies transmitted to the brain-except via your skin. Another engineer had a tablet computer with nine different words on its display; as he tapped the different words-like "grasp", "black", and "cone"-the first engineer felt vibrations on her arm that corresponded with the words and was able to correctly interpret that she needed to pick up a black cone on the table in front of her". Share thoughts independent of language. "This (project) could be as transformative as the (computer) mouse", she said.

"I think one thing that people probably don't think about as much as we do is innovation to serve everyone in the community, not just the high end, right?"