“Sharing your thoughts” takes on new meaning as Facebook and Elon Musk dive into your neurons.
In a 2004 conversation I had with Google’s cofounders, Larry Page was talking about his vision for the future of search. “Eventually you’ll have the implant,” he told me, “where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.” The remark became notorious, used frequently by reporters and cultural critics as evidence that the ambitions of Google’s founders — and indeed of Silicon Valley in general — would not stop short of a scenario where our very consciousness is plugged into some commercial enterprise’s operating system. The only consolation for those horrified commentators was that the concept was outlandish and impractical, safely consigned to the realm of science fiction.
No more. Last week at Facebook’s F8 conference, former DARPA head Regina Dugan, who leads its research group called Building 8, revealed that Facebook was working on a Brain Machine Interface (BMI) project. Yes, Facebook, whose goal is to connect everyone in the world to its network, now is exploring how to navigate the ultimate last mile problem — the gap between your brain and the keyboard. And for good measure Dugan talked about her group’s work on a second project that could eliminate the screen by communicating text messages through your skin.
After her keynote, I met with Dugan and the respective product heads of the brain and skin projects. Based on the DARPA model of hiring scientists for two-year sprints to determine viability of ambitious projects, Dugan hired Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Mark Chevillet to work on a system that would transfer brain signals to text. Using noninvasive optical light sensors, Facebook could analyze the neuro-signature of words that a user consciously directs to the “pre-speech” brain region — basically a launch pad for what someone wants to say or write — and then produce it on a computer screen or file, at a rate of 100 words a minute.
My own unconnected mind would have been reeling more had I not been sensing that BMI work was creeping up to a tipping point as of late. A few months ago, I did an on-stage interview and then hung out a bit with Bryan Johnson. He’s an entrepreneur (he sold his company Braintree to PayPal for $800 million) who founded Kernel, a company planning to develop tiny chips that could be implanted in a brain (a “neuroprosthetic”) and mess with the way that neurons signal each other. Originally it would help improve the cognitive functions of those suffering from dementia and other disorders. Ultimately, though, Johnson sees his product as augmenting the brains of healthy people. Since AI and deep learning are accelerating the cognition of machines so quickly, why not do the same for our brains, he argues.