The spring of 2017 may be remembered as the coming-out party for Big Tech’s campaign to get inside your head. That was when news broke of Elon Musk’s new brain-interface company, Neuralink, which is working on how to stitch thousands of electrodes into people’s brains. Days later, Facebook joined the quest when it announced that its secretive skunkworks, named Building 8, was attempting to build a headset or headband that would allow people to send text messages by thinking—tapping them out at 100 words per minute.

The company’s goal was a hands-free interface anyone could use in virtual reality. “What if you could type directly from your brain?” asked Regina Dugan, a former DARPA officer who was then head of the Building 8 hardware dvision. “It sounds impossible, but it’s closer than you realize.”

Now the answer is in—and it’s not close at all. Four years after announcing a “crazy amazing” project to build a “silent speech” interface using optical technology to read thoughts, Facebook is shelving the project, saying consumer brain-reading still remains very far off.

In a blog post, Facebook said it is discontinuing the project and will instead focus on an experimental wrist controller for virtual reality that reads muscle signals in the arm. “While we still believe in the long-term potential of head-mounted optical [brain-computer interface] technologies, we’ve decided to focus our immediate efforts on a different neural interface approach that has a nearer-term path to market,” the company said.

Facebook’s brain-typing project had led it into uncharted territory—including funding brain surgeries at a California hospital and building prototype helmets that could shoot light through the skull—and into tough debates around whether tech companies should access private brain information. Ultimately, though, the company appears to have decided the research simply won’t lead to a product soon enough.

“We got lots of hands-on experience with these technologies,” says Mark Chevillet, the physicist and neuroscientist who until last year headed the silent-speech project but recently switched roles to study how Facebook handles elections. “That is why we can confidently say, as a consumer interface, a head-mounted optical silent speech device is still a very long way out. Possibly longer than we would have foreseen.”

Mind reading

The reason for the craze around brain-computer interfaces is that companies see mind-controlled software as a huge breakthrough—as important as the computer mouse, graphical user interface, or swipe screen. What’s more, researchers have already demonstrated that if they place electrodes directly in the brain to tap individual neurons, the results are remarkable. Paralyzed patients with such “implants” can deftly move robotic arms and play video games or type via mind control.

Facebook’s goal was to turn such findings into a consumer technology anyone could use, which meant a helmet or headset you could put on and take off. “We never had an intention to make a brain surgery product,” says Chevillet. Given the social giant’s many regulatory problems, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had once said that the last thing the company should do is crack open skulls. “I don’t want to see the congressional hearings on that one,” he had joked.

In fact, as brain-computer interfaces advance, there are serious new concerns. What would happen if large tech companies could know people’s thoughts? In Chile, legislators are even considering a human rights bill to protect brain data, free will, and mental privacy from tech companies. Given Facebook’s poor record on privacy, the decision to halt this research may have the side benefit of putting some distance between the company and rising worries about “neurorights.”

Facebook’s project aimed specifically at a brain controller that could mesh with its ambitions in virtual reality; it bought Oculus VR in 2014 for $2 billion. To get there, the company took a two-pronged approach, says Chevillet. First, it needed to determine whether a thought-to-speech interface was even possible. For that, it sponsored research at the University of California, San Francisco, where a researcher named Edward Chang has placed electrode pads on the surface of people’s brains.

Whereas implanted electrodes read data from single neurons, this technique, called electrocorticography, or ECoG, measures from fairly large groups of neurons at once. Chevillet says Facebook hoped it might also be possible to detect equivalent signals from outside the head.

The UCSF team made some surprising progress and today is reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine that it used those electrode pads to decode speech in real time. The subject was a 36-year-old man the researchers refer to as “Bravo-1,” who after a serious stroke has lost his ability to form intelligible words and can

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By: Antonio Regalado
Title: Facebook drops funding for interface that reads the brain
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Published Date: Wed, 14 Jul 2021 21:37:00 +0000