It began with a simple question: “So, what if you could type directly from your brain?”
That was something Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg asked on stage during the company’s annual F8 conference back in 2017. Since then, Facebook has been funding research into a brain-computer interface (BCI) that it could use in augmented reality wearables, like its long-talked about AR glasses.
Looks like the mind-reading interface could be one step closer to reality with Facebook releasing the first significant update on the project, with researchers now able to “decode a small set of full, spoken words and phrases from activity in real time”.
This breakthrough, published in the journal Nature Communications, came about via an algorithm that was able to read the thoughts of participants suffering from brain injuries.
When the project was first announced in 2017, the goal was to “decode silent speech”.
In this experiment, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco – backed by Facebook Reality Labs – were allowed to implant electrodes into the brains of three epilepsy patients.
The participants were asked questions which they needed to answer aloud. This helped them identify activity and patterns in parts of the brain associated with understanding and producing speech in real time.
The readings from the electrodes, according to the researchers, were accurate 61% of the time, demonstrating it is possible to decode speech “in an interactive, conversational setting” to help people suffering from brain trauma to communicate.
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Facebook, however, is willing to be patient as the research progresses to where “real-time decoding speed of 100 words per minute with a 1,000-word vocabulary and word error rate of less than 17 percent” becomes possible… even if it takes a decade.
In the meantime, the company is working on a “portable, wearable device made from consumer-grade parts” that monitors oxygen levels in the brain. This, the social media giant claims, could be a way for a BCI device to read people’s minds without the need for invasive surgery.
The device is “currently bulky, slow and reliable” but, if or when perfected, could be used as a basis of Facebook’s AR glasses, allowing us – at some point in the future – to communicate without the need for smartphones.