Jeremy Manier | March 31, 2018
The Facebook executive strode onto the stage, outfitted like a ’60s-era spy in a black turtleneck and leather jacket, and calmly began describing one of the most mind-blowing research projects in corporate history.
What if, she said, you could type words using only your thoughts?
After all, fingers are clumsy, especially in this age of ubiquitous mobile devices, when we funnel our ideas into the world through five-inch screens — “little black boxes,” the executive, Regina Dugan, called them.
Dugan explained that Facebook is well aware of the unintended isolation that social media and smartphones tend to foster, as users interact with their screens at the expense of in-person relationships. The problem formed part of her team’s motivation to develop technology that could break down social barriers: Even as those miraculous little boxes are midwifing a new kind of society, the transformation comes at a real cost. “It has allowed us to connect to people far away from us, too often at the expense of people sitting right next to us,” she acknowledged at the company’s F8 conference in April 2017.
In that brief summary, Dugan diagnosed one of the key shortcomings of 21st century communications technology, and even hinted at a possible cure — weaning people away from the little black boxes. Her proposed solution? Not to back away from all-consuming technology, but rather to accelerate more urgently toward it.
Dugan sketched out the future that her team of more than 60 scientists and engineers in Facebook’s mysterious Building 8 lab group were seeking to achieve — the development of consumer devices capable of typing 100 words per minute by brain decoding, the reading of neural signals straight from a user’s brain. The technology likely would rely on optical sensors to detect neural activity through hair, skin and skull, extending techniques currently used in ordinary blood oxygenation monitors. Decoding the mind’s language, she said, promised to amplify the supremacy of mobile technology while rendering it invisible. It could connect people more intimately, giving them the mental tools to “send a quick email without missing the party,” and to be perpetually on social media without forsaking their social surroundings.