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This article was published on March 29, 2018

Should Facebook still be working on a mind-reading device?

Should Facebook still be working on a mind-reading device?
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Would you wear a piece of hardware that could read your thoughts and send them to a computer? The answer to that question, in light of current events, may be different depending on who is making the product.

It sounds pretty cool, in theory: you slide on some sort of headset device, lean back in your favorite recliner, think about sending a Facebook message, and it’s sent. Simple. Seconds later, you hear a chime, and think about reading a reply – which promptly pops up on the nearest screen in your visual field.

That, allegedly, is the future Facebook’s mysterious Building 8 division is working toward. But, surely, there’s no way it’s still considering such an ambitious project now. Right? Not after the giant Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Actually, turns out they are. A representative for Facebook told TNW, “I can tell you we’re still working on the project but don’t have anything new to share.”

Here’s what we know so far: Building 8 was reportedly working on several projects which were being kept under wraps. These included a $499 video chat device called “Portal” (originally code named “Aloha”), various AR and VR products, and of course, a “brain-computer interface” device.

Because of the data scandal, the social network scuttled plans to launch “Portal” in May, but there’s been no mention if it’ll see a later launch. And until now, we’ve had very little information trickle out of Building 8 concerning the stranger things it’s developing.

Mark Zuckerberg, in a Facebook post last year, said:

We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5x faster than you can type on your phone today. Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale. Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.

At the time, that merely sounded ambitious — like the kind of thing Elon Musk would say.

Actually, it’s exactly the kind of thing Musk would say, because his Neuralink company is working on something incredibly similar. The circumstances, however, are vastly different.

Right now the biggest issue Musk is dealing with, concerning the creation of a brain scanning device that allows a computer to read your mind, is whether people will accept the fact his company might be testing on animals.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has to deal with the fact that people know Facebook has a history of psychological testing on unwitting humans.

In this case, we’ve gotta hand the advantage to Neuralink – at least we can pretend our data will be safe with it, in lieu of evidence to the contrary.

In the past Musk and Zuckerberg have clashed over ideas like AI, and competition is usually a good thing for consumers. But when it comes to building devices that read our minds, maybe this time we err on the side of caution.

If Facebook is worried about bringing a smart speaker to market during a data scandal, there’s probably never going to be a good time for the company to launch a device that accesses your actual thoughts.

Then again, people have told Zuckerberg he couldn’t do something in the past – here we are nearly a trillion dollars later counting him out again.

The Next Web’s 2018 conference is just a few months away, and it’ll be ??. Find out all about our tracks here.

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