At Facebook’s F8 conference today, the DARPA and Google ATAP alum Regina Dugan debuted two new radical, multi-year projects being developed by the social media company with a singular goal: to turn your body into the ultimate computer peripheral–no keyboard, mouse, display, or speakers required.
The first of the two initiatives is called Project: Type With Your Brain. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a project with the goal of enabling someone to type 100 words per minute just by thinking them, within a few years.
As Dugan argued on stage, the human mind has enough bandwidth to stream 40 ultra HD movies at a time (a rate of about one terabyte per second). And yet, when we communicate through speech, it’s at the rate of a 1980s dial-up modem. “Speech is essentially a compression algorithm, and a lossy one at that,” she said.
The truest expression of feeling would come straight from your brain. But we’ll need radical new interfaces to communicate with our minds, especially if Facebook’s vision of the augmented reality world, experienced through glasses, is to really take off. “Even something as simple as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ brain click could fundamentally change our capability,” Dugan said.
To get there, Facebook has hired a team of 60 researchers with a diverse range of specialties to develop a prosthesis that can sit on your head, beam light into your eye, and read what your neurons are doing, “as they suck in sodium and spit out potassium,” in Dugan’s words.
The second project Dugan discussed is Project: Hear With Your Skin. Inspired by the Tadoma method developed by Hellen Keller–which allows a blind and deaf person to learn to “hear” and speak simply by touching the throat of someone who is talking–it’s a combination of hardware and software that could allow humans to discern vocalizations simply by feeling those vibrations, rather than literally hearing them.
Dugan showed a video of a woman named Frances for whom Facebook built an artificial cochlea. Frances wears a black sleeve on her arm, and it transmits different frequencies associated with different words to her skin.
“She has learned to feel the acoustic shape of words on her arm,” said Dugan, adding later, “If we put these things together, one day it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish.”
Dugan is superb at these presentations, and her role as Head of Building 8 at Facebook–where she leads the craziest R&D within the company–necessitates it. Just because she paints such a convincing view of the future doesn’t necessarily meant it will come true. At Google, Dugan’s team stumbled on seemingly impossible technologies like the Project Ara phone, which promised a smartphone that you could build and fix your as easily as you’d assemble Lego bricks.
Even still, Dugan does give us the clearest image of the distant future, as Facebook imagines it yet. It’s a future where we won’t type status updates, or talk to one another, or read screens. Instead, we’ll walk around the world as nodes in a giant empathy machine.
“Imagine the power that would give to the 700 million people who cannot read or write but can surely think and feel,” Dugan said. We’ll either be the peace-loving Na’vi aliens of Avatar, or the silent mechanical hivemind, the Borg.