Reading thoughts, hearing with skin and more Facebook fun

It seems like we are slowly getting used to old sci-fi ideas becoming a reality – just look at the size and functionality of a modern smartphone. This past Wednesday Facebook pushed the boundaries even further by unveiling some of the concepts they are working on at the highly secretive Building 8 division. Two most intriguing projects revealed at the San Jose Facebooks F8 conference are: ‘typing with your thoughts’ and ‘hearing’ through skin vibrations. Both these ideas are implemented through innovative brain-computer interfaces.

Talk to the machine

While ‘HAL 9000’-Esque verbal communication with a computer is already a part of our life – mainly through the ever-expanding family of virtual assistants – the ability to type with your thoughts is still an ambitious goal. Regina Dugan, the head of the Building 8 R&D team describes it as ‘silent speech’. The trick is to make the machine decode certain words and patterns – that you are willing to share – directly from your brain. Think of it – and the machine will type the idea in. Sure, there are some developments in the field, but they involve implants and electrodes. Facebook, on the other hand, are planning to develop a non-invasive wearable that is both easy to produce and ship.

Feel the shivers

The Facebook Messenger creators are working on hardware and software that could help hearing-impaired people ‘feel’ the sound through their skin. The idea is to make the skin ‘emulate’ the ear cochlea that converts sound into frequencies identifiable by a human brain. The team has shown some progress already by making the test subjects ‘feel’ up to nine distinguished words – colors, shapes, and actions – through skin vibrations only. Not much, but the perspectives are very promising. Dugan claims the method could not only help deaf people but, in time, could become a new discreet form of communication in itself. 

Dystopian thoughts

Regina Dugan, the head of the Building 8 R&D team.Regina Dugan, the head of the Building 8 R&D team.

Both these projects could completely revolutionize the way we communicate in the future, but some fear these exact approaches could potentially take away our freedom of thought. Facebook is a large corporation with almost 2 billion using the main app alone. With a VR social network on the way, what stops them from using this new leverage to manipulate our habits and preferences even more, or reading our thoughts even? Dugan dismisses the idea, claiming that ‘thought-typing’ technology will only work with thoughts and ideas you are already willing to express. Dystopian Inside-like mind control tech is still miles away, so... we'll see how things turn out.

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