Today, a few thoughts about mind control.
On the occasion of the launch of Facebook
Dating last month, I noted here
that “a defining feature of Facebook’s approach to product development is its ruthlessness, which often manifests as a kind of shamelessness. If good taste ever dictates that Facebook stay out of a product, history shows that it’s likely to wade right in.”
Facebook’s efforts to develop a brain-computer interface would seem to me to fall into this category. Other companies that found themselves under investigation by various world governments after a series of privacy scandals might ease up a little on the development of products that seek to read our minds. But to Mark Zuckerberg, the risk that the company might fall behind on next-generation computing technologies is too scary to ignore. And so you get developments like this one, from July
, when Facebook announced it had worked with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco to build an interface that could successfully decode spoken dialogue from brain signals.
On Monday, we saw another aspect of that ruthless / shameless dynamic playing out. As the company faces multiple antitrust investigations over competition issues, it announced it had acquired CTRL-Labs
, maker of a wristband capable of transforming electrical signals from the brain into computer inputs — a so-called “brain click.” (The Verge profiled the company in 2018
.) And Facebook paid big for it — between $500 million and $1 billion, Bloomberg reported
, making it the biggest acquisition since the company paid $2 billion for Oculus.
The vision for this work is a wristband that lets people control their devices as a natural extension of movement. Here’s how it’ll work: 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.
Technology like this has the potential to open up new creative possibilities and reimagine 19th century inventions in a 21st century world. This is how our interactions in VR and AR can one day look. It can change the way we connect.
Is any of this a good idea? To the extent that a brain-computer interface creates useful input mechanisms for virtual reality goggles or other futuristic hardware — sure! Then again, it will only start
with input. It seems unlikely that whatever brain-computer interface that helps guide you through the Oasis
will stop there.
Or maybe the Facebook brand prevents the technology from ever getting there in the first place. That’s Ben Thompson’s argument today in a members-only post at Stratechery
The problem is that the chances of CTRL-Labs technology making it to market in a meaningful way do seem lower with Facebook than with just about anyone else. Indeed, this worry applies to Oculus too: while Facebook’s cash is certainly nice to have, how much of a problem is the brand?
Perhaps none of it will matter, at least if the tech is good enough. Despite my concerns about the incompatibility of the Oculus business model with Facebook’s core business, Facebook executives are convinced it won’t matter if the company beats everyone to the augmented reality market in particular, and this acquisition has the potential to advance whatever lead Facebook may have in the area. That, though, gets at the value question: needing to overcome the Facebook brand means the money from the company is more expensive than it would be from other investors or companies, which is value destructive — not that there is anything Facebook’s investors can do about it.
Honestly one possible interpretation of, uh, recent events is that social media companies are conducting a vast and disturbing experiment on the workings of humanity’s subconscious mind. Now also Facebook will build new ways for our minds to directly manifest physical consequences in the world. What could possibly etc. There is a ton of talk in the tech world about the singularity, about reality as a simulation, about the risk that powerful artificial intelligence could escape from its human creators and take over the world. Perhaps one should read those ideas as metaphors. Perhaps the evil superintelligent robots were us all along.
There’s a long way to go before we’ll find out. In the meantime, I’m struck at how much the acquisition of CTRL-Labs feels like another $1 billion Facebook purchase from way back. When the company bought Instagram, most eyes popped over the price — but not the long-term competition issues. If CTRL-Labs succeeds in building the thing it’s working on today, and cements Facebook’s position as the market leader in AR and VR, will we have wished the Federal Trade Commission had blocked the sale, or put conditions on it?
If it was worth $1 billion to Facebook, I do wonder.