Facebook is developing mind reading and skin hearing technology. Seriously.


In perhaps its most startlingly far-out initiative yet, Facebook Inc. on Wednesday said it’s developing a way for people to type with their mind and hear with their skin.

Regina Dugan (pictured), head of Facebook’s innovation skunkworks Building 8, laid out a plan for a brain-computer interface at Facebook’s F8 developer conference Wednesday that allows you to give commands to a machine simply by thinking them. She also said the company was working on a wearable device that makes it possible to hear with your skin.

One of Dugan’s rationales behind the sci-fi-sounding developments is that we spend way too much time with our heads in our devices. But hating the device for that was “the wrong narrative,” she said. Instead, she argued, we must change the way we interact with our devices.

Dugan, who used to be head of Google Inc.’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group and was once a director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said her team of 60 scientists aimed to create a noninvasive mind reading device that could work with its user to type up to 100 words a minute.

The technology, she said, won’t be hitting the market any time soon, although she hastened to say: “It sounds impossible but it’s closer than you may realize.” She gave examples of how implants are already helping disabled people type using only their thoughts, but of course Facebook is not working products that require users to undergo any kind of surgery.

Facebook is looking to create noninvasive sensors that would measure thought signals based on functional near-infrared spectroscopy technology. Users would wear some kind of device strapped to their head, which may not sound appealing to the average person but could be a breakthrough for someone with a severe handicap. Facebook has also said the technology could work hand-in-hand with virtual or augmented reality.

“Even something as simple as a ‘yes/no’ brain click, or a ‘brain mouse’ would be transformative,” Dugan said in a Facebook post. In the post, she also outlined how in the near future Facebook was developing “a system that may one day allow you to hear through your skin” using similar sensor technology.

According to MIT Technology Review, some neuroscientists who were there for the presentation were skeptical about how advanced Facebook’s labs had taken the technology. “It remains to be seen how realistic it is to get this highly detailed information non-invasively,” said one neuroscientist. Dugan has acknowledged the possibility of failure, although optimistically she said, “We’re just getting started.”

Image: PopTech via Flickr