In Facebook's ongoing discussion series, Zuckerberg mentioned the concept of technology translating brain signals into information that could be useful to machines.
"The goal is to eventually make it so that you can think something and control something in virtual or augmented reality," he said.
The company has already been making strides in this area, with big investments in virtual reality technology via its hardware company Oculus. They've also been rumored to be working on augmented reality glasses.
Facebook purchased CTRL-labs in an undisclosed deal that is believed to have been worth as much as a billion dollars. The company has been working on technology for brain-to-computer interfaces. One of their products is a watch-style device that can intercept signals sent from the brain to the fingers to control a phone. It assigns nerve messages from the brain to commands inside the computer that could theoretically eliminate the need for pressing any buttons.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, he said that although signals can be read superficially, there are also cases where a device may need to be implanted, such as when your ability to translate the things that are happening in your brain to motor activity is limited. He stopped short, however, of declaring weather Facebook was interested in pursuing invasive means of meshing humans with computers.
One executive who is not afraid of using invasive approaches to mesh brains with computers is Elon Musk. His Neuralink technology, which has been likened to a “Fitbit in your skull,” can be surgically implanted into people’s brains by robots, where he claims it could address serious medical problems like blindness and paralysis. Of course, many experts immediately responded with extreme skepticism to his claims.
Zuckerberg has said in the past that his company is more focused on noninvasive approaches and was hoping to make augmented reality and virtual reality popular within the coming years. They are also reportedly looking into a non-invasive technology that uses near-infrared light to detect changes in the blood flow of a person’s brain while remaining outside of it.
Of course, there are also some very real ethical and health concerns here. Facebook would essentially be able to access people’s brain data, which may be one of the only types of data they don’t already possess about people. Given their track record of mishandling data, privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica, and censorship, it is pretty scary to think of what they could do were they are able to read people’s brains.
University of British Columbia Bioethicist Roland Nadler told Vox: “Facebook is already great at peering into your brain without any need for electrodes or fMRI or anything. They know much of your cognitive profile just from how you use the internet."
He added: “This is why I worry about this research program in the hands of Facebook in particular. It’s being able to couple that dataset with actual in vivo brain data that has the potential for any number of unforeseen consequences.”
Indeed, it raises questions that previous generations have never had to consider, such as the potential for interfering with the very basic right we all take for granted of mental privacy for our most intimate thoughts or the ability to determine where your own self ends and a machine starts.
Although motivations like helping paralyzed people to control prosthetic limbs are fairly above board, like all technologies, this one has the potential to go horribly wrong, especially in the hands of someone like Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.
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