Day 2 at Facebook’s Developers Conference “F8” was packed with thought provoking revelations in the fields of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, connectivity and brain research. Yes, brain research. This post will be all about the brain research project happening at Facebook’s secretive Building 8 – a unit within Facebook specialized on “building new hardware products to advance our mission of connecting the world”. You can watch the whole keynote of day 2 here and read my blog post about day 1 here.
At Bulding 8 “we'll be investing hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars into this effort over the next few years. I'm excited to see breakthroughs on our 10-year roadmap in augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, connectivity and other important areas.” said Mark Zuckerberg earlier in April in a Facebook post.
The leader of the pack at Building 8 is Regina Dugan, VP of Engineering at Facebook and former Google executive. It was her, unveiling what far reaching and ambitious projects Facebook is working on at Building 8.
Regina kicks off the keynote with her assessment of the smartphone today. Regina says that she has never seen "an as powerful force in the world as the smartphone". Yet, it also has unintended consequences she says such as all the distractions that are caused by it and its addictive apps. Too often we are sucked in the screens of these gadgets, missing what is happening around us.
Besides other factors, Regina believes that the recent rise in the popularity of voice as the next user interface (e.g. Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa etc.) is related to this attention seeking forces coming from the smartphone. Compared to typing and looking at the screen, voice commands allow you to lift your head up again, away from the screen and towards your surroundings. With voice, you are not as occupied anymore dealing with your smartphone.
But voice is sooo 2015, right? And yesterday is not at all what Building 8 is about. In fact, the teams at Building 8 are responsible for delivering essential cornerstones of Facebook’s 10-year roadmap which aims at improving connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. They want to achieve their goals by “creating and shipping category defining consumer products that are social first.”
"Products That Refuse to Accept False Choices"
Let me point out what this mission statement means: First, it underpins the fact that Facebook is eager to enter the hardware game of the next generation enabling a truly immersive virtual reality. The “camera as a platform” talked about at day 1 of F8 is one example. Second, Facebook wants to create the kind of products that inherently favors and promotes the use of social networks like Facebook. iPhones and other smartphones don’t do that as much as Facebook would like them to. Today’s smartphones are simply not built for the explicit interests of Facebook.
Facebook wants to get even closer to consumers by pushing virtual social behavior right at the start with the hardware we use every day. This is an important piece of Facebook’s long term strategy because it secures Facebook’s dominance. Today’s smartphones, tomorrows VR or AR glasses and eventually our brain implants (we’ll get there eventually, trust me) are the gatekeepers to everything we do in the digital world. In short, Building 8 is about making Facebook not only a virtual gatekeeper for information in the internet but also a physical gatekeeper as a piece of hardware. It’s the perfect execution of a piece of advice I like to give: Own your audience.
But what kind of products does Facebook have in mind exactly? I could not believe my ears when Regina, the head of Building 8, casually said: We want to build "products that refuse to accept false choices". Really?
Poets Are Good Compression Algorithms
At that point, Regina takes the leap and starts talking about Facebook’s brain research. The brain produces at least 4 HD movies worth of data a second, Regina explains, while speech has only a data bandwidth of a 1980 dial-up modem. In tech vocabulary, this means that “speech is a compression algorithm and a lossy one at that”. “That’s why we love great poets”, Regina continues. “They are just a little bit better compression algorithms”.
Wow. This statement and metaphor is a great example of how many engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs interpret the world in Silicon Valley. The computer and primarily its software is the leading metaphor with which the valley approaches and understands the world.
Now, no one could be happy with such a poor compression algorithm, right? What if you could type directly from your brain?
Regina shows an example of a handicapped woman who can’t move a single part of her body. In a short video projected to the vast screen behind Regina, the conference attendees witness how this woman uses her brain to move a cursor over a screen and therewith overcome her physical limitations. That’s amazing! With Facebook’s technology as of today, this woman can write a couple of words on a screen per minute simply by thinking. Compared to not being able to express yourself at all, that is a whole lot better. But still, it is far away from what most of us are capable of today typing with our keyboards and fingertips.
It is a very common theme that the many advances in brain-computer-interfaces we’ve seen in recent years like the ones presented by Regina are illustrated with handicapped people. On the one hand, in these examples this new technology really has an enormous positive and desirable impact on the user. On the other hand, I believe that handicapped people are deliberately chosen because it associates a very intrusive and potentially very dangerous technology with positive, heartwarming moments and emotions. It’s the ideal manifestation of the positive impact technology can have on our lives.
I’m sure that you and I would react differently to the same intrusive technology if its power were used on ourselves as we are free of handicaps. In the latter case I would argue that your feelings and thoughts about this technology would be more complex, challenging and maybe even negative. It’s great to see a handicapped person’s brain being connected to a computer to improve her life. But would you yourself like to hook up your brain to a service from Facebook? Would you trust Facebook not to use this brain-computer-interface for its advantage by different means of manipulation as soon as it’s put to commercial use? Already today Facebook’s algorithms are playing around with our attention, manipulating what we get to see and what not based on what keeps us on the platform the longest. Even if the chance of a complete takeover of our brain is minimal, simply the fact that the possibility exists, is frightening in my opinion.
An opinion is something that belongs to each and every one of us and they've been fought for since they matter in political processes and as consumers. With different means our opinions have always been influenced by the outside world. But should there be a direct link between an influencing force, no matter whether it is a company or a government, and your opinion via a brain-computer-interface?
Of course, I am not the only one who slides down the dystopian slope when I hear Regina speak about Building 8’s brain project. Let’s hear how Regine herself addresses the worries of skeptics like me:
“To be clear, we are not talking about decoding your random thoughts. That might be more than any of us care to know. And it’s not something anybody should have a right to know. Think of it more like this: You take many photos and you choose to share some of them. Similarly, you have many thoughts and choose to share some of them. We are talking about decoding those words, the ones you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain.”
Not really comforting or convincing if you ask me. I am no neuroscientist or psychologist but I would like to ask one if we can actually choose to share specific thoughts between different parts of the brain. Is this a conscious action or an unconscious process? Of course, I choose everyday what words come out of my mouth and which remain inside as quiet thoughts. Sometimes I think, some people even have a problem with that, choosing what comes out of their mouth or gets on their Twitter feed.
And what would we get ourselves a brain sensor for? Let’s ask Regina again. We would get “a silent speech interface. One with the speed and flexibility of voice and the privacy of typed text. Better yet with the ability to text a friend without taking out your phone. Or to send a quick email without missing the party. No more false choices.”
Really? Millions of dollars invested for sending an email at a party with the power of our thoughts? I know I am nitpicking right now but if it weren't for securing Facebook's position as the leading social network in a future where the mainstream device will be VR glasses that have no input channels other than our voice or thoughts, this money would better be invested in solving one of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Just sayin'...
“No more false choices”.
What does it mean that this kind of research is taking place in a privately-owned company? Should this kind of fundamental research be restricted to public entities such as universities or a multi-national research center like CERN? Should companies be required to make everything public? How could this be monitored? I would really like to start a debate about these questions. Let me know what you think.
How close is this future where I can tell my brain that I want to send a poop emoji to a friend? It will not be tomorrow but I could imagine that it’s closer technologically speaking than we think. And as always, I’m sure that technologically it is far closer than socially. But simply the fact that a seamless brain-computer-interface is not impossible anymore and that gazillions of dollars and brain power is invested in it to get it on our heads within a generation should cause us thinking where we want to take this kind of progress from here. Technology never asks what is good or bad. But we as people and societies have to.
One of the many problems Facebook faces is that currently the transmitters need to be implanted in the brain by surgery. Regina and the crowd in the conference venue laugh when she says that this procedure "just does not scale". Yet another example of the quasi religion common in Silicon Valley: Scaleism. The blind urge to grow as fast as possible, no questions asked. Silicon Valley for the most part does not think in terms of good or bad but in terms of scalability, growth, shareholder value. In the age of platforms, the winner takes it all. How much of what Building 8 is about actually stays true to the romantic maxim among many tech entrepreneurs in the Bay Area that they want to make the world a better place?
To "move fast and break things" - Facebooks original company mantra – might be a reasonable approach for developing smartphone apps, but is it for brain implants? "We don’t always have the luxury of time", says Regina on stage. Facebook commets that at Building 8 “teams move fast, with aggressive and fixed timelines. We extensively create and leverage partnerships with universities, small and large businesses, and set clear objectives for shipping products at scale.”
What will happen when one day the engineering and science teams at Building 8 face the trade-off whether a product needs to be scalable and move fast or have zero flaws? Let’s leave it with Regina’s closing thoughts: "Is it a little terrifying? Of course. Because this matters. Success matters. And so, if we fail, it’s gonna suck."