Typing on a smartphone is a drag. It takes forever to punch out a word on a touchscreen keyboard. Gesture typing (or "swiping") is better, but still slower than a real keyboard, and half the words come out wrong. Voice-to-text is easier, and safer when driving. But accuracy is still below par, and there are many situations when speaking your message out loud is either impractical or rude.

But help is on the way. Facebook just revealed at its F8 conference that the company has had 60 engineers working on a brain-computer interface that will let you type words merely by thinking them. The technology won't eavesdrop on the thoughts you don't want to share, but will capture the words you think of speaking without speaking them out loud, much like sending a telepathic message in a science fiction movie.

Think this is impossible or decades in the future? Not so much. Technology has existed for years that lets paralyzed people type by thought in exactly this way. It requires a surgical brain implant, though, which most Facebook users probably don't want. Facebook thinks it can lick that problem by using optical imaging to scan your brain 100 times per second and detecting the words you want typed. The company is working with scientists from several large universities, including Johns Hopkins and UC Berkley, to make this a reality. Facebook predicts that brain-based typing will be able to reach 100 words a minute, which fast typists can match on a full-sized keyboard (and is about as fast as most people speak). But it's about five times faster than most of us can type on our mobile phones.

This research is taking place inside Facebook's R&D Building 8, a mysterious lab where the company builds some of its most futuristic technology under the direction of Regina Dugan, who headed Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects lab before joining Facebook about a year ago. Before Google, she headed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a government agency that helped launch the internet years ago and, more recently, developed some of the first self-driving cars. In addition to brain-based typing, she told the audience at F8, Building 8 is working on technology to allow deaf people to "hear" through their skin by using software that allows it to convert vibrations into sounds the brain can recognize, much as the cochlea do in hearing people's ears. A test subject has been able to recognize nine different words this way so far.

All these developments raise a host of ethical questions, something Dugan is keenly aware of. "I've never seen a technology that you developed with great impact that didn't have unintended consequences that needed to be guardrailed or managed," she told the F8 audience. That's why she's in the process of forming an independent Ethical, Legal and Social Implications panel to oversee this research, as she explained to TechCrunch in an interview. (Gotta love the URL for that TechCrunch piece: "i-sure-hope-so.")

In the here-and-now, Facebook is also working on improving the viewing experience of 360 video by developing algorithms that predict where a user will look next, allowing for those areas of the video to be rendered first. (Quality can be a challenge for 360 video because the medium is such a data hog.)

The message is clear: Facebook wants to be first in on futuristic, immersive technology. And it definitely intends to stay ahead of Snapchat.

Published on: Apr 19, 2017
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