Correction: The original version of this story misstated some details about the UCSF study.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink isn’t the only company that wants to send your thoughts straight from your brain to a computer.
More than two years ago, Facebook revealed it was working on a project for typing words onto a computer right from your brain, without requiring invasive surgery to make it work.
The company has been working with several universities on the effort, including the University of California, San Francisco. Facebook helped pay for UCSF researchers to study whether electrodes placed in the brain could help us learn to “decode” speech from brainwaves in real time.
As it turns out, this is possible: A study published Tuesday showed that researchers could instantly see — as text on a computer screen — a word or phrase that a participant was saying by looking at brain activity, as long as it was among a limited set of answers in response to predetermined questions. The study includes three epilepsy patients voluntarily implanted with electrodes.
Facebook is also footing the bill for a new, year-long study that UCSF is currently conducting where it will try to use brain activity to help a person who can’t speak communicate. The social network hopes the efforts could help reveal which brain signals are key for that non-invasive wearable that it’s planning for in the years ahead.
“We expect that to take upwards of 10 years,” Mark Chevillet, a research director at Facebook Reality Labs who runs its brain-computer interface group, told CNN Business of the overall project. “This is a long-term research program.”
An idea years in the making
At Facebook’s 2017 developer conference, F8, the company painted a fantastical picture of a mysterious, noninvasive device that would pick up on your brain signals and one day enable you to type 100 words per minute.
Such a gadget would be a far cry from the brain-computer interfaces scientists have been working on for decades. They still tend to be stuck in labs because they are pricey, have to be implanted under a user’s skull, and need to be connected to a computer to perform even the simplest tasks.
Not much has been heard about Facebook’s research since. Six months after showing it off on stage, Regina Dugan, the leader of Facebook’s secretive hardware division, Building 8, left the company (Building 8’s research efforts have since been added to Facebook Reality Labs, a which includes a range of virtual- and augmented-reality research). More recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mentioned it during a talk at Harvard in March, saying he’s excited about “reshaping our computing platforms to be fundamentally more about people and how we process the world.”
Now, however, some of Facebook’s efforts are coming to light with news of the ongoing research projects.