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Regina Dugan of Facebook’s Building 8 team shows a video of someone hearing words through their skin via sensors. (Photo Via Webcast)

Facebook has thrown out its share of moonshots over the years, but this one puts the rest to shame.

The social media giant, through its innovation arm Building 8, is working with a team of more than 60 scientists around the world to develop what it calls a “silent speech” interface to decode human thoughts and convert them to text. The head of Facebook’s Building 8 program and former head of DARPA, Regina Dugan, gave an overview of this plan at the company’s F8 conference Wednesday. She cautioned that the outcome is still years away, but the aim is clear.

“Together we have a goal of creating a system capable of typing 100 words per minute, five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, straight from your brain,” Dugan said.

Regina Dugan

Dugan showed an example use case of a person with ALS being able to type out messages using her thoughts. She also saw situations where a brain-to-text system could be used in daily life.

At the beginning of her talk, Dugan spoke of how smartphones have helped people connect with others around the globe, but caused us to neglect the world in front of us. With this new speech system, Dugan envisions a scenario where you can quickly think an email — since the brain operates much faster than humans can relay information — rather than having to type it out and hit send.

Dugan compared the silent speech system to how people use photographs. They take a ton, but only choose to share a few. That would be true of thoughts the system will translate. It won’t collect every random thought, just specific ones. The best, and least invasive way for this system to work is through optical imaging.

This big idea doesn’t end with speaking. It also extends to listening. The human body has been shown to be able to decode messages through touch, most commonly with braille.

At the event, Dugan showed a video of a Facebook employee with a series of sensors connected to her arm. Another person would select combinations of nine words via a smartphone app. Those words would be relayed to the sensors in the other person’s arm and then she would repeat back the message.

Decoding thoughts, and making it possible to hear with the body, could break down language barriers and help those who can neither read nor write communicate better, Dugan said.

“If we put these two things together, they suggest that one day not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish.”

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