Day 6

Secretive Facebook project wants to turn thoughts to text

One of the hottest topics at next week's Code Conference will be Facebook's efforts to connect technology directly to our bodies, including a way to translate thoughts directly into text.
A Bonavista mother took to social media to defend her son who plead guilty to charges of forcible confinement and sexual interference. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo/Reuters)

Facebook already knows who your friends are and what you like. But in the not too distant future, the company may also know your thoughts.

The social media company's research division, Building 8, announced at the F8 conference in April that it's been working on a device that would be able to translate thoughts to text at a rate of 100 words per minute. The average person types between 38 and 40 words per minute.

Regina Dugan, head of Building 8, called their design a "silent speech interface" able to skip past fumbling thumbs straight to words appearing on the screen.

"If you've dictated to Siri, imagine the same thing but without you speaking outside," Mark Chevillet told the Verge in April. Chevillet is the interface's technical lead.

Dugan and Chevillet say that their design would be external, using a sensor that wouldn't need to be implanted into a human brain — and won't translate all of your darkest thoughts to text either.

The sensor would use optical imaging, a technique similar to X-rays. It uses visible light and photons as means to precisely read signals from the brain.

Dugan said during her F8 keynote that the sensor would be able to differentiate between ideas you want to communicate and thoughts you'd rather keep private.


High ambition, but straightforward aims

While details beyond that outline have been scant, technology journalist April Glaser describes the intent behind the project as straightforward.

"Facebook wants to make money," Glaser tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"They do that by advertising things to us that are really hyper focused on what we signal we're interested in by the amount of time we've spent on a page or the things we say we like or the things we navigate to."

She also notes that the implications of such a technology in Facebook's hands are staggering, despite promises to keep personal privacy intact.

"Transparency's going to be huge here. People are going to want to know what data is being collected at all times and Facebook should be really careful about what they collect," she says.

Dugan, vice president of engineering of Building 8 at Facebook, speaks on stage during the second day of the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Glaser reports for the technology news website ReCode, which is holding the invitation-only Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on May 30 to June 1 this year.

The conference is meant to provide organizations as different as Microsoft and the New York Times an opportunity to reflect on the societal impact of current and upcoming technologies.


Thought to text remains on the mind

Translating thought to text, or other means of wordlessly communicating with machines, will likely be a topic of discussion given how Facebook isn't the only company working on a solution.  

Tesla's chief executive Elon Musk launched another company called Neuralink, with the intent of building brain implants that will help humans interact with computers as means of competing with the potential power of artificial intelligence.

"Your output level is so low, particularly on a phone, your two thumbs just tapping away," said Musk at a conference in June, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Neuralink's implants would be more invasive, but Facebook's Dugan referred to traditional modes of human interaction in similar terms, calling speech a "compression algorithm, and a lossy one at that."

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg exits the stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

"Facebook is thinking of all of the different ways that we can receive and transmit information with as little effort as possible, or with as little interfacing with machines," Glaser says of Facebook's design.

With that capability comes ethical concerns, few of which are clear this early in development.


Too early to know the consequences

"It's not a matter of having malicious intent. It's a matter of not thinking through all of the different ways this technology can go awry," says Glaser.

Facebook has said the company will build a panel of ethicists and academics to help guide the project.

Dugan has made no promises as to when they'll have a device they can bring to market, however all Building 8 projects have two-year deadlines. 

Attendees watch during a keynote on the second day of the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Building 8 is simultaneously working on another device that could help translate thoughts into physical sensations. Essentially, it would use clothing to send frequencies through the skin that a person could interpret as ideas.

While these projects will likely not be available publicly in the immediate future, they represent Facebook's desire in the long run to make communication seamless, overriding language and vocabulary, and also improve the company's bottom line.

"It's a very different world than the one we live in now, but they're thinking in those terms," Glaser says.

To hear April Glaser's look into Facebook's moonshot projects, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.