In 2017, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) announced that its research lab was working on a brain-reading interface (BRI) that’s designed to let users type and navigate intuitively by simply using their thoughts. Today, in a paper describing the technology, the company said that it has made progress in its quest to make such a device a reality.
In a study, published in the journal Nature Communications, Facebook showed how its Reality Lab researchers in collaboration with scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), were able to use their BRI to decode speech directly from the human brain onto a computer screen.
Sharing their latest progress on such a device, researchers said that after working with three patients undergoing treatment for epilepsy who had electrodes temporarily implanted into their brains, they were able – based on readings from high-density electrocorticography monitors – to figure out the patients’ answers with accuracy rates “as high as 61 percent” by looking at brain signals alone.
“Imagine a world where all the knowledge, fun, and utility of today’s smartphones were instantly accessible and completely hands-free,” Facebook wrote in blog post. “Where you could connect with others in a meaningful way, regardless of external distractions, geographic constraints, and even physical disabilities and limitations.”
The scientists believe that their results “demonstrate real-time decoding of speech in an interactive, conversational setting, which has important implications for patients who are unable to communicate.”
Facebook noted however, that there is still a lot of work to be done to build a system with brainwave reading features that isn’t invasive. Additionally, BRI’s current decoding algorithm can only recognize a small set of words and phrases.
“It’s currently bulky, slow, and unreliable,” FB said, describing the brain-computer interface device. “But the potential is significant, so we believe it’s worthwhile to keep improving this state-of-the-art technology over time.”
Another reason why Facebook is eager to come up with technology that reads human brainwaves is to develop augmented reality glasses.
“Today we’re sharing an update on our work to build a non-invasive wearable device that lets people type just by imagining what they want to say,” Facebook’s VP of AR/VR, said in a tweet. “Our progress shows real potential in how future inputs and interactions with AR glasses could one day look.”
Facebook isn’t the only Silicon Valley company interested in studying computer-brain interfaces. Elon Musk’s brain-computer start-up Neuralink is trying to link our brains to computers. In fact, the Tesla and SpaceX founder wants to start implanting chips into human brains as early as 2020 to create direct human connections to computers.