“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan said, as the same words appeared on the towering screen behind her, one digital character at a time, a cursor leading the way.
“It sounds impossible,” she continued, taking another measured step across the stage. “But it’s closer than you may realize.”
Dugan once oversaw Darpa, the visionary research arm of the US Department of Defense. Now, after a stint at Google, she oversees a blue-sky lab at Facebook called Building 8. Her keynote speech last week at the company’s annual developer conference marked her public debut as a Facebooker. At Google, she worked on modular smartphones and ways of converting our immediate surroundings into 3D virtual worlds. At Facebook, she and her team are building, among other things, a computer interface for the human brain.
It was a powerful speech, especially when she showed a short video of a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, who can already control a computer tablet keyboard with her thoughts. Later, Dugan extolled the importance of Facebook’s “terrifying” effort to build something that has never been built before. “Why do we sign up to be terrified each day?” she said. “That is the price we pay for the privilege of making something great.” But before you buy into this very Silicon Valley message too completely, you should realize that Dugan’s project, like so many of her projects at Darpa and Google, is truly a leap of faith. And, in some ways, her speech misrepresented what’s possible.
“On the one hand, it is very exciting that these ideas are being discussed,” says Miguel A.L. Nicolelis, the Duke University neuroscientist whose lab has been at the center of brain-machine interface research since the late 1990s. “But the announcement was more like science fiction than something grounded in physical reality.”
Facebook wants to outrace the competition to the next big computing platform, whether it’s virtual reality, augmented reality, or now machine-brain interfaces. Apple and Google beat Mark Zuckerberg and company to the smartphone, and he doesn’t want to lose again. But as always in Silicon Valley, there are other motivations at work here. Facebook is also a company that wants to be seen as the kind of innovator that will do good for the world, especially at a time when so many people are questioning the company’s impact on public discourse.
Dugan said that within “a few years,” her researchers aim to produce a system that lets people type with their thoughts three times faster than you can type with a smartphone keyboard, a much faster rate that what she demonstrated in the video of the woman with ALS. This kind of technology, she said, will not only help people with disabilities but allow us all to use computing devices while continuing to interact with people here in the real world. But Robert Riener, a professor for Sensory-Motor Systems at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich and another pioneer in this field, believes that such tech is more like a decade away—if it happens at all.
Silicon Valley has a history of pushing technologies forward faster than academia, but it also has a history of overestimating how quickly it can move. Both are worth considering in the wake of Dugan’s speech. Facebook declined our efforts to discuss this research with Dugan, but clearly, more is at play here than just science. Dugan wants to do great things by risking failure, but she and her colleagues are also working to foster the belief that Facebook will do these great things faster than anyone else.
Across Silicon Valley, as strange as it may sound, a race to build a human-brain interface is already underway, and Facebook must compete for mindshare and talent. Just a week before Dugan’s speech, Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled his new machine-brain interface company, Neuralink, and earlier this year, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Johnson unveiled a similar effort, called Kernel. Like Facebook, both of these new companies are promoting their efforts to achieve things that are impossible today. “All this is marketing,” says Nicolelis, who oversaw the academic work of two scientists who are part of Musk’s new startup, including the Neuralink CEO.
Some scientists believe that at least some of the tech promoted by these companies will never be possible, even setting aside the ethical quandary of whether humans should be seeking to turn their brains into machines at all. “Elon believes that the brain works very much like a computer does,” Pascal Kaufmann, a neuroscientist who has explored similar research and is now the CEO of an artificial intelligence company called Starmind, says of Musk’s recent announcement. “Whilst Tesla, Space-X and many other endeavors are possible with a lot of efforts, sweat and cash, the brain code cannot be unlocked even with unlimited cash resources as long as the underlying theoretical neuroscientific foundations are missing or just plain wrong.”
Johnson and Musk aim to implant devices inside the skull that can shuttle information between the brain and outside machines. But as Nicolelis says, such untested tech poses dangerous risks for healthy human beings. “I can’t imagine that anyone, on ethical grounds, would allow a healthy human being to be implanted with devices like that,” he says, echoing what other neuroscientists have said.
The brain-machine interfaces that scientists like Nicolelis have long explored are quite different. They aim to build implants that can help treat people with epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and other maladies. These implants can gather data about these conditions and perhaps even alleviate symptoms through what’s called deep brain stimulation. Johnson and Musk say they will begin with this kind of work, but they also see it as a path to devices implanted in healthy brains.
To Facebook’s credit, it’s not hyping the possibility of implants. Instead, Dugan says, her team, which now spans more than 60 scientists and technologists, is exploring interfaces that could read brain activity from outside the skull. But according to Nicolelis and other neuroscientists, the kind of technology she describes may not be possible for ten or even twenty years, if at all. Facebook hopes to use sensors that can read brain activity through optical imaging technology, but reliably taking such readings from such a distance is not feasible today, let alone the extreme difficulty of actually interpreting those signals. Today, scientists understand very little about how the brain actually works.
But even if listeners give Dugan the benefit of the doubt, her speech painted a picture that wasn’t quite what it seemed. She wants to build a rapid-fire non-invasive machine-brain interface for everyone. She said that this is “just the kind of fluid human computer interface needed for AR”—the digital “augmented reality” overlay on the physical world that Facebook and so many other companies see as the future. But in promoting this effort, she showed off a woman with ALS guiding a software keyboard through a brain implant—a very invasive device.
What’s more, Nicolelis argues, this woman—the subject of a recent Stanford study—didn’t need an implant. She could have driven that keyboard, albeit at an even slower rate, through much simpler external devices. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” Nicolelis says of the video that Dugan slotted into her speech. In other words, Dugan and Facebook showed off technology that is not really representative of the work they’re doing and may even be dubious science.
Confused? We don’t blame you. Just remember this: Typing with your brain is probably just as a far away as you think.