Facebook says its mind-reading project is all about improving our lives. Yeah... right

Let's get one thing straight: this innovation isn't for us. It's for them, and for the advertisers and other players benefiting from our data.

Surely advertisers aren't interested in getting into our heads, right?

Let's get one thing straight: this innovation isn't for us. It's for them, and for the advertisers and other players benefiting from our data. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Last week, Facebook announced that it's working on new technology to read our minds — yes, you read that right — all in the interest of making our lives easier.

That's according to Regina Dugan, who is heading up Facebook's innovation team.

The constant need to look down at our smartphones has had a negative impact on our lives, says Dugan, but with the new technology that Facebook is developing, you won't need to worry about being rude when you check messages. If Facebook's mind-reading software is successful, you'll never need to actually look at your screen, or even type; Facebook will simply read your thoughts.

Decoding your thoughts

The company currently has 60 employees working to develop non-invasive sensors that can measure brain waves, decoding the brain signals associated with language. Basically, the software will decode the words you're thinking, as you think them, and translate them directly to your device.

Facebook's goal is to develop software that can type 100 words per minute, without your fingers ever touching your keyboard. And while there's still a lot of work to be done, parallel advancements in neural prosthetics for those with injuries and movement disorders provide examples of what is possible in the not-so-distant future.

It's a pretty compelling pitch, and there's no doubt this announcement ushers in a fascinating new era of technology — something we would've thought confined to the pages of science fiction literature.

But don't be fooled by Facebook's marketing.

The company wants us to think that its mind-reading software is about convenience and making our networked experiences better. In fact, Facebook has mused about losing the screen altogether, and finding a way to input your thoughts directly into another person's brain via a computer. Typing? Reading? So yesterday.

But let's get one thing straight: this innovation isn't for us. It's for them, and for the advertisers and other players benefiting from our data.

Big data

Now, we've known this for a while. Big data – the cumulative pool of information that is formed by our online purchases, our searches and the photos and product pages and status updates we "like" – is a goldmine for advertisers. Surely, everyone has noticed how the ads on Facebook and Google transform with each new life milestone.

Did you recently change your relationship status to "engaged?" Expect to find your feed full of promoted posts for dresses, rings and venues. Planning a vacation? Welcome the onslaught of Caribbean all-inclusive sell-offs as you scroll through your timeline.

But these days, the use of our data to merely sell us things seems relatively benign, quaint even. Recently, it came to light that Cambridge Analytica — a firm contracted by Donald Trump's campaign team and by the side that successfully campaigned to leave the European Union during Brexit — has used all of that data, namely through Facebook, to build psychological profiles of hundreds of millions of people.

Just imagine what happens when these companies can actually read our minds. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Thanks to seemingly innocuous tools, such as those ubiquitous Facebook personality quizzes, the company claims to have compiled up to five thousand data points on every American, with information such as age, location, occupation and hobbies, and in some cases, voting histories, religious affiliations, income and debt.

With all of that information, Cambridge Analytica is able to target campaign messaging to specific voters by knowing their preferences, vulnerabilities and political leanings. In a way, thanks to Facebook, they can basically read our minds — and that's before any of this brain interface technology has come to market.

Now just imagine what happens when these companies can actually read our minds. Facebook says this new technology is just for us, allowing us to keep our phones in our pockets and focus on the people around us, but it's hard to ignore the precedent in terms of information-sharing that's already been set.

Digital mind-reading might sound exciting and novel, but who is really going to benefit? Or profit? Undoubtedly, it won't be us. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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