17th Dec 2020
The sci-fi dream of sending commands to a computer just by thinking about it may soon become reality, writes Amanda Cassidy
“We all get the privilege of seeing the future because we are making it.”
These are the chilling words of Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer speaking at a meeting about their newest project; creating a neural sensor to detect people’s thoughts and translate them into action.
The audio was leaked to BuzzFeed earlier this week causing a stir among privacy advocates and social media critics.
Facebook has been working towards this type of brain-reading system for years. In 2017, the company announced its plans to deliver a brain-computer interface headset. Last year it acquired a neural interface startup called CTRL labs.
According to the audio of the meeting, it seems the company has made further progress on its goals. But the ethical implications are unique, something Schroepfer acknowledged.
“We have to build responsibly to earn trust and the right to continue to grow,” he said. “It’s imperative that we get this right so that people around the world get all these amazing technologies … without experiencing the downsides.”
The idea is to create technology that can read neural signals coming from your brain, down the spinal cord, along your arm, to a wrist with a watch-type of device. These signals — essentially human thoughts — would then be translated into commands such as typing a sentence in an email or making a character in a computer game perform a specific action.
But bridging the gap between the physical and virtual worlds is something we need to talk about more. How do we differentiate, from a privacy point of view, where the self ends and the machine begins?
The leaked audio has prompted a flurry of criticism for the social media giant – especially as many activists have claimed that Facebook already invades the privacy of its users.
But as it gets a step closer to reading our minds in some capacity – there remain a lot of unknowns that even CTRL-labs CEO Thomas Reardon noted.
‘We still don’t understand what a neuron that is used for controlling machines may have previously been used for. Nor do they understand the long-term consequences of using brainpower to influence virtual reality instead of the physical world.
In a discussion with VentureBeat, he said that “the really hard work that we’ve done is to distinguish between ‘Are you using that neuron to move, to control your body? Or are you using it to control the machine?’
We have some… pretty breathtaking breakthroughs to distinguish between different kinds of neural activity from the same neuron.”
With great power comes great responsibility, and so far Facebook has yet to prove itself capable of handling such an ethically wobbly breakthrough.
Tinfoil hats, anyone?
Image via unsplash.com
Read more: Why we really need to talk about Facebook
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