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Be mindful of your wishes, they might be granted

A prototype of Facebook’s optical device for reading brain signals. Image credit: Facebook

Back in 2017 Facebook announced their vision for a consumer grade brain computer interface that would allow people to think and see their thought in print, at a rate of 100 words per minute (that is better than typing! An average person types between 30 and 40 words per minute, professional typist may reach 65/75 words per minute. As spoken words this depends on the language, in the US is around 150 wpm).

At this rate of “thought to print” conversion one could have seen the demise of keyboards in a short while.

What was most interesting in the Facebook announcement was their confidence than in a short time it would have been possible to create and effective non-invasive BCI (that is not requiring the insertion of electrodes in the brain). Now, after 4 years that vision has not materialised and Facebook has just said that they are discontinuing the project because mass market BCI are too far away. Quoting their statement:

“That is why we can confidently say, as a consumer interface, a head-mounted optical silent speech device is still a very long way out. Possibly longer than we would have foreseen.”

I should say, and by re-reading my posts you can get the proof, I have always been skeptical of their vision (in the short term, let’s say within this decade), so I am not surprised of their move.

At the same time their effort and the feeling that something like a though-reading machine was on the horizon stimulated a concern by many parties of the risk, and dark shadows, that a success would bring.

Setting up a goal, without evaluating its downsides, is not a smart move (this is what i meant with “be mindful of your wishes, they might be granted”). Indeed Facebook started to look at ethical and societal implications but what is needed is to have independent and neutral bodies to consider these aspects. A new word has been coined: “neurorights”, to indicate the new frontiers that might be opened by technology and the risks to see our own thoughts being extracted from our brain.  Notice that big players are using artificial intelligence to get insights on our thoughts, as they are observing how we interact with their services. Picking our thoughts directly from our brain is just one more step on the way to “own” our souls…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.