Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg wants to read your mind and let you hear through your skin: The craziest moonshot projects revealed by Regina Dugan at F8

 
Lynsey Barber
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From brain to screen without typing? Facebook's working on it (Source: Facebook)

Forget artificial intelligence, chatbots and virtual reality... the newest trend appears to be mind reading technology.

Instead of typing with your fingers, you might soon be able to just think the words on to the screen.

It might sound like science fiction, but the social media giant Facebook has a team of people working on just such a thing right now, and it's "closer than you realise".

The lid has been lifted on the work going on at Building 8, the home of its moonshot projects. Regina Dugan, a former executive at Google and Darpa (the US government's top secret research centre), took to the stage at Facebook's F8 developer conference, saying that we need a new interface beyond the smartphone screen which has taken over our lives (or attention, at least).

The problem with screens

She said she has never seen something as powerful as the smartphone "which didn't also have unintended consequences" but said it was a "false choice" and the "wrong narrative" to talk about it in terms of being like an addiction.

"This little black box has allowed people to connect with people far away from us, to share moments of our lives, and to do so unconstrained by time or distance. But it has also cost us something," she said.

"It has allowed us to connect to people far away from us too often at the expense of people sitting right next to us. We've all begun to feel it."

She continued: "This device is important. It allows us to be curious about the world beyond the one we can see right in front of us. It allows us to have empathy for people we might not otherwise know. It allows us to be adventurers and explorers, humanitarians and citizens of the world. That's good."

"It's just that we know, intuitively and from experience that we'd all be better off if we looked up a little more often."

What if you could type with your brain?

A human computer interface "sounds impossible but is closer than you realise" said Dugan, demonstrating an example of this in action.

A video of a woman with Parkinsons was shown on screen. Electrodes the size of a pea had been implanted in her brain, letting her choose the letters from a keyboard on screen just by thinking of it.

This won't be about dippping in and out of your brain and "decoding random thoughts" in your head, she claims, as you're intention to formulate the words has already been sent to the speech centre of your brain, from where that information is taken to appear on screen.

And the ultimate, somewhat ambitious goal, is to "create a system capable of typing at 100 words per minute, five times faster than you can type on your smartphone straight from your brain."

There's certainly work to do though as fitting everyone with electrodes "will not scale". Facebook thinks optical imaging may be the answer. And Dugan believes this could become the significant way we interact with virtual and augmented reality.

What if you could read with your skin?

Not only does Facebook think we should be sending information with our brains, we should also be using different senses to receive that information too, such as feeling it on your skin, in a similar way to braille.

"What if we could make it possible for you to hear through your skin? You have two square metres of skin on your body. It's a complex network of nerves," said Dugan.

Our skin "allows us to interprate complex inputs. The pressure change in a puff of air, the vibration of the vocal chords".

A video of a Facebook employee testing out a rudimentray version of such technology was shown, with an implant in the person's arm which functions like a cochlear for hearing.

Dugan said the tester "learned to feel the acoustic shape of a word" on her arm.

Watch below...

A new interface

The concept of screen overkill is a growing one. 15m Brits last year admitted to going on a "digital detox" to escape their phones.

The rising popularity of voice helpers such as Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant have been partly down to removing the barrier of the screen, analysts say.

Facebook isn't following suit with its own voice tech, but taking a different path that is both parts amazing and scary. It's not the only one, however.

Elon Musk, already having created his fair share of wild (but very much happening) technology - think SpaceX and Hyperloop - has also indicated his belief that a brain computer connection is the future. And he's even suggested he's building a company to make this happen.

Watch Dugan speaking here, from one hour and eight minutes in.

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