Facebook Wants to Read Your Mind

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference on April 18, 2017 at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Facebook is literally working to make science fiction a reality. VP of Engineering Regina Dugan recently took to Facebook’s F8 developer conference stage to talk about what she and her 60-person team are working on. It’s otherworldly: Facebook is kind of creating a new language, and is actually developing mind-reading technology. You know, to make status updates cooler.

“Just as you take many photos and decide to share some of them,” writes Dugan, “so too, you have many thoughts and decide to share some of them in the form of the spoken word. It is these words, words that you have already decided to send to the speech center of your brain, that we seek to turn into text.”

CEO Mark Zuckerberg elaborates in a follow-up Facebook post: “Our brains produce enough data to stream 4 HD movies every second. The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world — speech — can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem.” We think faster and more richly than we speak, so if Facebook could tap into our raw thoughts, we’d be able to “write” status updates at 100 words per minute without a keyboard.

Dugan stresses that this would be a “non-invasive” technology; Facebook isn’t working on brain implants. Turning thought into text stands to benefit people with speech impairments or other communication disorders. And Facebook aims to bring this system to fruition over the next two years.

As though this weren’t a lofty enough goal, Facebook is also at work on a ”haptic language” that would figuratively enable us to hear with our skin. It’s possible to replicate the functions of the human ear’s cochlea using hardware, then send that information to the brain — through the skin. If it works as described, then it would grant us the ability to communicate with and understand people from all around the world.

“One day maybe not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish," Dugan said. "Imagine the power it would give to the 700 million people around the world who cannot read or write, but can think and feel.” We’ve all heard of words and phrases that have no direct translation to our own language, words, and sentiments that are more abstract. Facebook would appear to want to usher in an age where we can have deep, meaningful conversations free of linguistic trivialities.

For now, this stuff is merely high-concept PR to send the message that the company is fanatically focused on the future. We won’t be seeing these features on any sort of official timeline: The technological hurdles to bring these features to the public are significant. To type via thought, for example, would require non-invasive sensors to measure brain activity through human skin, hair, and skull — accurately and quickly. Current sensors aren't up to the task, says Dugan.

The internet’s gonna get weird soon.