A research project financed by Facebook has developed a system capable of picking up and analyzing the brain activity of hospitalized patients and then transcribing them in written phrases on a screen.
Exchanges at the speed of human conversation
This research project is ambitious: it allows people suffering from paralysis to communicate with their loved ones in a quicker and more fluid way than the methods that currently exist. This communication works by analyzing their pupil movements or muscle contractions which they use to control a virtual keyboard.
This project was created with the hopes of easing these people’s disabilities and allowing them to interact with us more naturally, as Doctor Edward Change, neurosurgeon and leader of the study, explains.
‘To date, there is no speech prosthetic system that allows users to have interactions on the rapid timescale of a human conversation.’
Teaching the machine to read our thoughts
To achieve this goal, doctors at the University of California placed small electrodes in the brains of three epilepsy patients who were about to undergo surgery for their condition.
During their stay in hospital, each of them were asked nine questions and asked to read a list of 24 potential responses while their brain activity was being recorded by the researchers. These questions were varied, ranging from ‘How do you feel?’ to ‘How is your room currently?’ and even ‘Is it too dark or too light?’
Once their brain activity had been recorded, professor Chang and his team developed a self-learning software, which was able to successively analyze each of the recordings and associate them with the questions and predetermined answers. Once this stage was finished, researchers were then able to present their prototype that was capable of directly recognizing the nerve impulses for questions asked (with 76% accuracy) and the nerve impulses for answers given (with 61% accuracy) which would then reproduce these answers as written phrases or as speech.
Being able to communicate through thoughts
The system is currently limited to just a few phrases and the program’s objective is to create a system that is capable of understanding any term or phrase formulated by our thoughts. You might think that all they would need to do is expose the software to a huge number of people and interactions in order to expand the program’s vocabulary, but things are a lot more complex than that.
As a matter of fact, this current system detects brain signals and nerve impulses that are being sent to move the different corresponding body parts such as the lips, larynx and the tongue. But for some people suffering from extended paralysis or other neurodegenerative diseases for example, these signals wouldn’t suffice because the nerve transmissions are different. Therefore, there is still a lot of work to be done by researchers.
Social media in your head, or a prospect for a new collective intelligence?
But where does Facebook come into all this? Between the takeover of the Occulus VR company in 2014, and the creation of virtual money in 2020, Mark Zuckerberg’s social media site is still looking into new, innovative projects to make our reality more virtual. In a recent statement, the internet giant claimed that this brain-to-speech technology would be an add-on to virtual reality helmets, allowing future users to have free hands and the ability to write messages at an unprecedented speed.
However, this idea makes us wonder about a very ambitious goal: transforming social media into an actual virtual world or an expanded version of our current world in which everyone can meet up, talk to each other and ‘live’. But, behind the amazing prospects of this rosy and ‘super fun’ world, are worrying motivations that are just as bad as some scenarios from science fiction or from TV shows such as ‘Black Mirror’.
In fact, GAFAM’s power has always relied on their ability to collect information about their users in order to target them better. While this is already very intrusive today, it could potentially become an inevitable threat for individual freedom and the fundamental right to a private life.
This is worrying lots of people and despite sanctions, won’t prevent Facebook, nor any of its partners such as Elon Musk’s company NeuraLink, Google, Microsoft, Apple or Amazon from working on projects that will work even closer with our lives and which maybe one day, will allow machines to work directly inside our heads.