Facebook buys mind-reading start-up to control devices by thought

Facebook has agreed to acquire a start-up focused on enabling humans to control devices using the power of their minds.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg

CTRL-Labs has developed a wristband that measures neuron activity in a wearer's arm and translates thoughts of movement into digital signals, allowing them to move an avatar or pointer around a screen.

The start-up will join Facebook's Reality Labs team, which is focused on augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technologies, meaning the interfaces are more likely to appear first within games and experiences for the company's Oculus Rift VR headset than its main social network.

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"You have neurons in your spinal cord that send electrical signals to your hand muscles telling them to move in specific ways such as to click a mouse or press a button. The wristband will decode those signals and translate them into a digital signal your device can understand, empowering you with control over your digital life.

"It captures your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an imperceptible movement or just by, well, intending to."

Facebook first announced plans to build a brain-computer interface capable of reading human brain waves and allowing a user to type text using their thoughts in August 2017.

Regina Dugan, then-head of the company's hardware projects, said at the time Facebook was planning to build systems dedicated to decoding speech-focused neural activity and translating it into 100 words per minute over the next two years.

“Just as you take many photos and decide to share some of them, so too, you have many thoughts and decide to share some of them in the form of the spoken word. It is these words, words that you have already decided to send to the speech centre of your brain, that we seek to turn into text,” she said at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference.

The company's efforts would focus closely on monitoring activity in the specific section of the brain, which directly translates thoughts into speech and not surplus thoughts, she clarified.

Facebook characterised these as “the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech centre of your brain”, sharing just some of the many thoughts you may have.

The concept of connecting brains to computers has also caught the attention of Tesla founder Elon Musk.

The company could one day implant 'thread' chips into paralysed humans' brains, allowing them to control electronic devices.

Neuralink's ultrafine threads, which are one-third of the diameter of a human hair to lessen the likelihood of damage to surrounding tissue, will be planted deep into a patient's brain by a robot Mr Musk likened to a "sewing machine".

Neuralink's long-term goal is to "achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence," (AI) the billionaire explained, helpfully adding it would not be a "mandatory thing," but something "you can choose to have if you want".