Facebook invests heavily in the neural interface startup, so what does that mean for the future?
You’ve no doubt seen the news, but just in case you’re living in a fallout shelter with intermittent internet (and really, who would blame you?), Facebook announced on September 23rd, 2019 the acquisition of New York startup CTRL-Labs.
Now, Facebook is no stranger to expensive acquisitions, but CTRL-Labs stands out on the merit that they are developing a neural interface platform. What could the social media giant want with this kind of technology, I wonder?
Looking at The Facts
The flagship product in development at CRTL-Labs is known as the CTRL-Kit. This non-invasive neural interface platform allows people to wear an armband that reads electrical signals from their muscles, known as electromyography (EMG), to interface with computers or machines via various motion inputs.
CTRL-Labs will join Facebook’s Reality Labs, which is a division of the company working on the development of augmented reality smart glasses which are codenamed “Orion.”
This decision comes hot off the heels of another acquisition in June of 2019 where CTRL-Labs purchased the patents of a similar wearable known as the Myo band.
At the time, CTRL-Labs chief strategy officer, Josh Duyan, had this to say regarding the patent purchase:
“This is an important step toward the future of universal control and our unwavering commitment to novel neural interface technology.”
Keep that in mind. Back in the present, the acquisition of CTRL-Labs by Facebook is rumored to be a purchase between $500 million and $1 billion, though a Facebook spokesperson has gone on the record to say it was less than $1 billion (because that really matters).
Any way you slice it, this purchase represents a significant investment by Facebook into the technology. There are two ways you can look at this. The first is through the lens of potential competition.
Facebook is currently under scrutiny from the FTC as the commission has launched a probe to determine whether the social media corporation’s purchases are in an attempt to snuff out the competition before they become a problem.
That’s one way to look at it, but given the existence of Facebook Reality Labs, there is another reason why this technology may be important to them.
Time to Put on Your Tinfoil Hats
The combination of Facebook’s “Orion” augmented reality glasses and now this purchase of CTRL-Labs points to a clear connection between the two. On the surface, the tech from this acquisition could lead to features in the AR glasses that you can control via movement or neural input.
Remember that quote from Josh Duyan earlier? This is bigger than just controlling computers with your movements. It could also allow Facebook to record and read your thoughts (sort of).
We know that things which influence the hearts and minds of the people is something that the social media corporation has been involved with for some time. We also know that people’s private information (or their brainwaves) probably aren’t off the table if it could lead to bigger profits.
If you think that sounds crazy, I recommend you check out The Great Hack on Netflix for an eye-opening experience. All of this also ties into a fascinating talk I attended at DEF CON 27 last month from Katherine Pratt, Ph.D.
Her talk was entitled “Hacking Your Thoughts — Batman Forever Meets Black Mirror.”
She spoke at length about how companies like Facebook, Valve, and the enigmatic Elon Musk are funding research into the type of research that translates neural signals into input across a wide range of devices. Here is a quick interview where Katherine describes some use cases for the technology:
The other side of the talk at DEF CON 27 was, of course, how this type of technology affects our privacy. The implications here are huge, and the talk went into all manner of different scenarios that I can’t unpack here.
Suffice to say, through some of Katherine’s research, it was proven that you could, in certain situations, predict or infer certain things about a person based on their neural response. One example was an experiment where a person would take an item before the test, like a necklace or a watch.
The person was then showed pictures of all the items they could have taken. Based on their brain waves, you could spot the moment when they saw the item they had “stolen.” The reaction is subconscious and impossible to mask.
Now imagine if Facebook had access to your brain waves via a device like the one being made at CTRL-Labs. They could see your reactions to things like advertisements or posts and use that to influence how you think (quite literally).
Am I saying this is the long-term goal? No, but I think it would be naive to suggest that the thought hasn’t crossed Zuckerberg’s mind. As with any new technology, there’s an opportunity to enrich the lives of people and an opportunity to use it for personal gain.
Which road will Facebook take? Only time will tell.