Facebook says it's working to let you 'hear with your skin'


Dugan told software developers at Facebook's annual F8 conference that the company was modeling Building 8 after DARPA, a government office founded in the 1950s that gave the world the internet and the miniaturized Global Positioning System receivers used in consumer devices.

Facebook Inc.'s research lab Building 8 is working to make it possible for people to type using signals from their brains, part of the lab's broader effort to free people from their phones. Its goal is to get good enough at interpreting information from the brain to be able to pull 100 words per minute - or about four times faster than the average person types on a smartphone with their thumbs. "This matters. If we fail this is going to suck". "Brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like or how it is spelled", said Dugan during the keynote.

An expanded version of this report appears on WSJ.com.

At Facebook's F8 conference today, the DARPA and Google ATAP alum Regina Dugan debuted two new radical, multi-year projects being developed by the social media company with a singular goal: to turn your body into the ultimate computer peripheral-no keyboard, mouse, display, or speakers required. Early partners include Nike Inc., Electronic Arts Inc.

It remains to be seen if Facebook can develop such a technology and widely deploy it.

In December, Facebook signed a deal with 17 universities including Harvard and Princeton to allow swifter collaboration on projects with Dugan's team.

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A representative of Facebook's Building 8 explains that this project is built starting with knowledge of previous, similar projects. "It is these words, words that you have already made a decision to send to the speech centre of your brain that we seek to turn into text". We have only several thoughts out of many we'd actually like to share, Dugan said, and Facebook is not interested in broadcasting the random noise in your head.

"We are talking about thoughts you want to share".

Before joining Google, Dugan ran the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, devoted to developing technology for the U.S. military. Dugan adds that it's also possible to "listen" to human speech by using your skin. "What if we could type directly from our brain into a computer?" Researchers have been trying to use the skin to transmit language for decades - though with limited degrees of success.

The implications for brain-to-text technology are mind blowing and cautionary, says Joshua Feast, CEO of Cogito, an artificial intelligence and behavioral science company spun out of MIT. Once virtual reality and augmented reality have run their course, he has theorized, a form of technology-enabled telepathy will help people capture and then share their thoughts and feelings with friends.

In her presentation, Dugan claimed that one Facebook employee had reached a "tactile vocabulary of about 9 words", which is simultaneously not that great and a really cool sentence.

"If you ask Frances what she feels", Dugan said, "she'll tell you that she has learned to feel the acoustic shape of a word on her arm".