Facebook’s plan to tap into your brain is strange, scary … and fantastic


It’s all I could think as I listened to Facebook’s VP of Engineering Regina Dugan speak about skin and brain interfaces.

Like the first time you encounter Dr. Frankenstein outside his lab, Dugan, who made her F8 developers conference debut on Wednesday, started off sounding reasonable enough, telling us that the choice between paying attention to the person in front of you and checking your smartphone was a false one. 

Yeah, I could get on board with that. There’s important stuff on my pocket device, a world of information, social media, and breaking news that I shouldn’t have to miss, just because there’s someone in front of me craving my attention. 

But then Dugan slipped on her lab coat, grabbed a burning torch and invited us downstairs into her basement lab, figuratively, of course.

And things got weird. 

Our brains are fast and the pipeline for getting that information out into the world ( our mouths and voices) is slow. It’s like broadband on one side and a 300-baud modem on the other. 

“What if you could type directly from your brain?” she cackled. 

Okay, Dugan never cackled. She explained in measured, soothing tones every body-interface concept as if it was the most natural thing in the world. 

Typing directly from your brain normally involves some sort of implant and has been tested on ALS patients, giving them the ability to type eight words per minute. However, brain implants couldn’t be done at scale — all that surgery — she said. And Facebook’s goal is, she noted, “To create and ship category-defining products that are social first. At scale.”

Facebook’s brain interface method would involve optic technology (something to do with quasi-ballistic photons) and it would read words you’d committed to saying or typing, not thoughts. 

It sounded fantastic, strange, and scary. Dugan promised a working demo in a few years.

With my mind still reeling over the concept of thought-based text, Dugan introduced the concept of hearing skin.

Seriously, what is this fascination with body parts?

The good news is I understand how skin listening can work. 

Our skin is a tremendously sensitive organ (yup, your skin is your body’s largest organ). It can tell the difference between a tap and a squeeze, a kiss, and a breeze. Facebook has already created the prototype of a device that can translate words into pulses delivered to the skin surface, ones that someone can be trained to understand.

Dugan gleefully proclaimed that it only took hours for the woman in the video demo we saw hours to learn a few words.

It was then that we saw the reanimated corpse.

No. Sorry, that didn’t happen.

But why is Dugan trying to engineer our bodies? Did she drink from the same cup as Neural Lace-obsessed Elon Musk?

It’s about you as the interface

I think I understand where Dugan and Facebook are going here: They’re preparing for a day where we no longer carry smartphones. Instead, we have AR glasses, haptic clothing and a teragraph terrestrial network that maintains our connection to the internet and, therefore, Facebook, no matter where we are, 24/7. 

If you can think Facebook posts without typing, every post will be perfect, typo free. And if you can do it without speech-to-text recognition, you won’t distract others around you or even be distracted from the real-world task in front of you — that is if you are someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time. I’m not convinced that many of us can think a Facebook post while driving a car.

Yet, if this works, it will turn Facebook engagement into a friction-free experience. Brain-generated posts could just as easily be brain-generated likes.

How do you know what to like on Facebook if you’re not reading? Skin listening.

Your form-fitting haptic skin suit can tap and pulse all over your body to read out posts, alert you to likes and let you conduct surreptitious conversations wherever you are. Facebook Messenger would be alive on your body. 

Dugan’s somewhat terrifying plans don’t mean Facebook is any less committed to the smartphone. Look at all the time, money and engineering effort it’s putting into the Camera as an AR platform. There is, for now, no way to replace images captured and consumed on the phone with something body-based, though I’m sure Dr. Frankenst … er … Dugan is working on it. 

Enriching that experience makes sense even as we eventually shift the conversational portion of Facebook communication to our bodies. 

AR glasses, which will surely have built-in HD cameras for capturing photos and video, will eventually replace the smartphone screen. When that happens, we may be truly free of this distracting device and the burden of having to make that false choice, at least from the perspective of the world’s most popular social media platform

We’ll still need phones for email, though.

WATCH: Why Facebook’s AR announcement should excite iPhone fans

Google reportedly planning built-in ad-blocking feature for Chrome

Google plans to introduce an ad-blocking setting in both the mobile and desktop versions of its Chrome browser, according to The Wall Street Journal. The option would be opt-in, and it would remove any and all “unacceptable” ads as defined by Coalition for Better Ads industry group. Those types of ads include pop-up ads, autoplay videos, and what are known as prestitial ads, or those ads that are often fullscreen and show up before you’re taken to the homepage or desired website.

How Google will implement this feature is still being debated, the report says. One option includes blocking all advertising on a website if it includes even just one offending ad, which would ensure that website owners keep all forms of advertising up to standard. The other option is simply to block the offending ads in question, though it’s unclear whether Google will go forth with either strategy. Google declined to comment for this story.

It may sound counterintuitive for a corporation whose entire business pretty much depends on internet advertising to consider an ad-blocking feature in the world’s most popular web browser. However, Google has a vested interest in ensuring web users don’t turn to third-party ad-blocking tools that Google does not control and, in some cases, that charge users website owners money to bypass ad-blocking filters, effectively defeating the purpose.

The company has a history of disallowing or preventing what it sees as harmful ad practices, like blocking pop-ups in new tabs and issuing malware warnings. So in a way, Google appears to be taking additional steps to clean up advertising bad practices and keep users happy, even if it means throwing a healthy chunk of the lower-end ad market under the bus.

Update at 7:54PM ET, 4/19: Added that Google declined to comment.

A French presidential candidate held 7 rallies at once with this technology

French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is streamed live via hologram to a rally on February 5, 2017 in Paris, France.
French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is streamed live via hologram to a rally on February 5, 2017 in Paris, France.

Image: Thierry Orban/Getty Images

A French presidential candidate is trying to squeeze in all the rallies he can before the first round of voting begins in a matter of days — and the best way to do that is to be in multiple places at once. 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon spoke simultaneously at seven rallies on Tuesday. He was physically present at one, while his image (almost but not technically a hologram) was projected to crowds in six other locations. 

The technology works by recording Mélenchon and projecting his image on a screen on the floor of each stage, according to Le Parisien.

The screens create the illusion of a 3D Mélenchon so long as folks look at him from the front. Move to the side, and he becomes paper-thin. 

The far-left candidate did this once before, in February, but that one holographic showing was just a tune-up. 

Mélenchon is one of four candidates with a legitimate shot at the presidency. The first round of voting is set to take place on April 23. Assuming no candidate wins a majority (and that looks pretty much impossible), a run-off between the top two candidates will take place on May 7. 

WATCH: Pikachu looks amazing as a hologram

How to mute those obnoxious Instagram live video notifications

No one wants to get pinged every single time you go live.
No one wants to get pinged every single time you go live.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Instagram Stories might be beating Snapchat at its own game, but it’s not without its faults.  

Most glaringly, it includes one of Facebook’s most grating features: live video. Live broadcasts can be cool — and they’re not as intrusive on IG as they are on Facebook — but you probably shouldn’t subject all of your followers to a livestream unless something really exciting is going down. 

Live video arguably goes against the whole appeal of Stories, and Instagram on the whole: meticulously curating the most hyper-visual aspects of your life for your followers. So if you’re sick of getting pinged every time one of your favorite accounts bucks that purpose and starts a broadcast, you’re going to want to mute your notifications.  

It’s really easy to shut off the pop-ups. Just follow these simple steps.

First, head over to your profile tab. From there, tap the gear in the top right corner to pull up the Options menu. 

Get on over to those settings. Yes, my nephews are very cute.

Get on over to those settings. Yes, my nephews are very cute.

Image: screenshot/instagram 

Then, scroll down the list of Settings, where you’ll find Push Notification Settings. Push on that next. 

Image: screenshot/instagram

Finally, tick the checkmark from “On” to “Off.” That’s it.

See ya never, John Appleseed.

See ya never, John Appleseed.

Image: screenshot/instagram

If you really feel like tailoring your IG experience, you can also turn off post and story notifications, as well those annoying messages that tell you about Facebook friends you’re not following on Insta. Just don’t accidentally switch off your “like” notifications, or you’ll lose your entire source of digital gratification. 

WATCH: Instagram captures stunning electric blue ‘sea sparkle’ phenomenon

Instagram celebrities keep sneaking in sponsored posts, FTC says

The Federal Trade Commission recently sent letters to more than 90 “influencers and marketers” warning them about disclosing when social media posts are paid for by advertisers, the agency said today in a statement.

The FTC did not name any recipients of the letters, but said the action was taken in part because of petitions by advocacy organization Public Citizen about Instagram posts. In a September 7th letter to the agency, the group noted several apparent cases of non-compliance with disclosure rules on Instagram. The letter highlighted posts by celebrities like Bella Hadid, Rihanna, and Michael Phelps. The FTC, which says this is the first time it has reached out to social media influencers directly to teach them about disclosures, also advised users to make disclosures on Instagram conspicuous — above the “more” button, and not buried within hashtags.

Under FTC endorsement guidelines, social media users must disclose when there is some kind of relationship, often monetary, between the endorsement-maker and an advertiser. This usually takes the form of a note like #ad or #sponsored. If an account endorses a product without making that clear, it could be in violation of the guidelines.

The agency has taken action before when it spots violations of the rules. In July of last year, Warner Bros. settled charges that it had improperly paid YouTube stars, including PewDiePie, to promote the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Facebook plans ethics board to monitor its brain-computer interface work

Facebook will assemble an independent Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel to oversee its development of a direct brain-to-computer typing interface it previewed today at its F8 conference. Facebook’s R&D department Building 8’s head Regina Dugan tells TechCrunch, “It’s early days . . . we’re in the process of forming it right now.”

Meanwhile, much of the work on the brain interface is being conducted by Facebook’s university research partners like UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. Facebook’s technical lead on the project, Mark Chevillet, says, “They’re all held to the same standards as the NIH or other government bodies funding their work, so they already are working with institutional review boards at these universities that are ensuring that those standards are met.” Institutional review boards ensure test subjects aren’t being abused and research is being done as safely as possible.

In any new technology you see a lot of hype talk, some apocalyptic talk and then there’s serious work.

— Regina Dugan, head of Facebook’s Building 8 lab

Regina Dugan presents at F8

Facebook hopes to use optical neural imaging technology to scan the brain 100 times per second to detect thoughts and turn them into text. Meanwhile, it’s working on “skin-hearing” that could translate sounds into haptic feedback that people can learn to understand like braille. Dugan insists, “None of the work that we do that is related to this will be absent of these kinds of institutional review boards.”

So at least there will be independent ethicists working to minimize the potential for malicious use of Facebook’s brain-reading technology to steal or police people’s thoughts.

During our interview, Dugan showed her cognizance of people’s concerns, repeating the start of her keynote speech today saying, “I’ve never seen a technology that you developed with great impact that didn’t have unintended consequences that needed to be guardrailed or managed. In any new technology you see a lot of hype talk, some apocalyptic talk and then there’s serious work which is really focused on bringing successful outcomes to bear in a responsible way.”

In the past, she says the safeguards have been able to keep up with the pace of invention. “In the early days of the Human Genome Project there was a lot of conversation about whether we’d build a super race or whether people would be discriminated against for their genetic conditions and so on,” Dugan explains. “People took that very seriously and were responsible about it, so they formed what was called a ELSI panel . . . By the time that we got the technology available to us, that framework, that contractual, ethical framework had already been built, so that work will be done here too. That work will have to be done.”

Building 8 R&D division head Regina Dugan at Facebook’s Area 404 lab

In just the span of a week, Facebook went from being criticized for not innovating and just copying Snapchat, to merely using its social network monopoly to squash the innovation of others, to innovating so far into the future that it scares us and conjures dystopic thoughts.

Worryingly, Dugan eventually appeared frustrated in response to my inquiries about how her team thinks about safety precautions for brain interfaces, saying, “The flip side of the question that you’re asking is ‘why invent it at all?’ and I just believe that the optimistic perspective is that on balance, technological advances have really meant good things for the world if they’re handled responsibly.”

Facebook’s domination of social networking and advertising give it billions in profit per quarter to pour into R&D. But its old “Move fast and break things” philosophy is a lot more frightening when it’s building brain scanners. Hopefully Facebook will prioritize the assembly of the ELSI ethics board Dugan promised and be as transparent as possible about the development of this exciting-yet-unnerving technology.

Keep your kids reading this summer with the Kindle for Kids bundle, now $25 off

Keeping your kids free from online distractions can be a challenge, with modern mobile devices giving them ready access to videos, games, and more. A dedicated ebook reader for your child is a great alternative to a tablet, but if you’re looking for a device with built-in learning apps and a better warranty than most, then check out Amazon’s Kindle for Kids bundle.

Children’s literature tends to be fairly short and if your kid loves to read, you know how quickly they can burn through a stack of books. An ebook reader not only gives you access to much cheaper ebooks, but keeps all of them on a single device, making them ideal for road trips and reading on the go.

Kindle for Kids bundleThe Kindle for Kids bundle includes the standard Kindle ebook reader along with a folding case that protects the screen, and boasts the e-ink display that made the Kindle famous. This screen uses multiple shades of gray to mimic the appearance of paper, virtually eliminating the eye strain that comes from staring at a bright LCD display — an even bigger concern for children whose eyes are still developing.

Let’s face it: Kids can be rough-and-tumble with their stuff, so along with the protective cover, the Kindle for Kids bundle is covered by a generous two-year worry-free warranty from Amazon. If anything happens to your child’s device, Amazon will replace it for free, no questions asked. This ebook reader also comes loaded with features like Kindle FreeTime, Word Wise, and Vocabulary Builder to help your child learn new words, set goals, and track reading progress.

The eighth-generation Kindle alone normally costs $80, while the Kindle for Kids bundle is currently on sale for $100 after a neat $25 discount. This means that for a limited time, you can get your child a Kindle with a protective cover, two-year worry-free warranty, and built-in kid-friendly features, for just $20 more than the standard ebook reader.

$100 on Amazon

Facebook’s new 360-degree cameras change the virtual reality game

Virtual reality just got a bit less, well, virtual. 

On the second day of Facebook’s F8 conference in San Jose, the company unveiled two new cameras that have the potential to change the way people both capture and experience virtual reality. 

The x24 and x6, as they are called, use their assortment of cameras to shoot 360-degree 3D video. Unlike many other 360-cameras, the x24 and x6 — which have 24 and six lenses, respectively — combine with Facebook technology to shoot in so-called six degrees of freedom.

Why does this matter? With traditional 360 video, a user with a VR headset is essentially limited to the perspective of the camera that filmed the scene. Want to walk around the 360 environment? Sure thing, but your view will not track with your avatar’s placement within the virtual world. 

Lame, right? 

Enter the x24 and x6. Facebook says it has basically solved this static-view problem, and that its new cameras plus special software allow a user to see from perspectives entirely different than that of the camera which captured the scene. 

What does this mean in practice? Imagine looking around a virtual bush in a 360 VR video and actually seeing the other side. According to Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, it’s possible with the x24 and x6. 

So where can you get your hands on Facebook’s new cameras? Sadly, the answer is nowhere — at least for now. According to Engadget, Facebook intends to license them out commercially but not sell them directly to consumers for the time being. 

Basically, don’t expect your Uncle Ralph to post a 360-degree video of his company’s softball game any time soon.

That could change eventually, however, as Facebook does want to sell the x6 and x24 at some point. And whenever that point does come, virtual reality will start feeling a lot more real. 

WATCH: People are kissing a car on Facebook Live for a chance to win it, and yes, it’s dark

Tribeca Film Festival to stream events with Godfather cast, others on Facebook

Why it matters to you

Can’t get tickets to the Tribeca Film Festival. Facebook Live has you covered. The festival will stream 12 star-studded discussions on its Facebook page.

Whoever said you can not learn anything by spending hours on Facebook lied to you. Starting on Thursday, the Tribeca Film Festival will live-stream 12 star-studded discussions via Facebook Live on its Facebook page.

Among the events you will be able to watch on Facebook is a discussion with the cast of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the first of the two films. The discussion will include the films’ Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, as well as acst members Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and Robert De Niro. The talk starts at 8:10 p.m. ET on April 29 as part of the festival’s Closing Night gala and is already sold out, so it’s Facebook or bust if you want in.

Girls creator Lena Dunham and the show’s executive producer Jenni Konner will talk with Superstore star America Ferrera about the HBO show that just cam to an end, as well as their experiences in the entertainment industry. Retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and animator Glen Keane will talk with Michael Strahan, an NFL Hall of Famer and co-host of Good Morning America, about the new Dear Basketball animated short film Bryant and Keane worked on together. Both of those discussions are part of the Tribeca Talks: Storytellers series, which will also feature conversations between Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

These talks will provide some of the earliest insight about the next TV shows and films you could be binging on. Most of the discussions will take place following an accompanying film or episode screening, which will not be featured in the Facebook Live stream. Hulu will world premiere its new drama series The Handmaid’s Tale at the festival on Friday prior to a discussion with the creators and cast. National Geographic will world premiere its new show Genius about Albert Einstein; executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are among those included in the subsequent discussion.

The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off Wednesday. You can find the full schedule of events that will streamed on Facebook Live here.

Talking fiber, drones and open-source hardware with Facebook’s Yael Maguire

Facebook has been putting a lot of resources into improving internet connectivity in rural areas. At first, that may seem like a distraction for the social networking giant, but Facebook takes its mission to connect people pretty literally. And to do so, it’s taking a building-block approach that involves lots of different projects that all attempt to solve different issues of this larger technology challenge.

At its F8 conference in San Jose this week, Facebook once again moved these connectivity efforts into the spotlight. While the most exciting example of its work in this area is surely its giant, solar-powered Aquila drone (which actually hangs over the exhibit area at the conference), a lot of the work Facebook is doing here is in the networking technologies that connect the drone (or multiple drones) with the internet. That includes a project like Terragraph, which is meant for urban environments, as well as the likes of the OpenCellular project, a fully featured wireless access platform of technologies for improving the backhaul networks that power all of this.

As Facebook’s director of its connectivity programs Yael Maguire told me in an interview at the event, it’s worth remembering that Facebook itself has no interest in commercializing these technologies. “There is technology development and then there’s the community — how we engage with the world,” he said. “As technology gets developed, the plan is to contribute it to community organizations, the Telecom Infrastructure Project — modeled after the Open Compute project — and then figure out how we get like-minded companies and individuals excited about thinking about how technology gets deployed at scale.” He noted that a number of telecom companies are already working on prototyping some of the technologies Facebook developed and contributed, including the Voyager router project.

Facebook’s projects, of course, focus on connecting rural areas that are currently underserved by exactly the telecom companies it hopes will adopt these technologies. As Maguire noted, what these telecoms care about is that the backhaul becomes price-effective enough that it makes sense for them to provide connectivity in these areas.

At the end of the day, all of these projects — no matter whether we are talking about drones or antennas that cover city blocks — depend on a backhaul network that is typically powered by fiber connections. That was also one of Facebook’s motivations for launching a rather traditional fiber network in Uganda earlier this year. “Fiber is the start of everything,” Maguire said. “You can’t have Aquila, you can’t have Terragraph unless you have fiber. And so we have to make sure that we are part of understanding and seeing if there is any way that we can help in the ecosystem context if every part of that chain of technology can work. And if Fiber is hard to deploy in rural Uganda to connect Aquila, then we have a problem.”

It’s worth noting that for Facebook, the emphasis here is on connecting people — not devices. So while the projects it is working on may also be useful for Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications, that’s not something the company is focusing on itself. Maguire noted that the openness of the project does mean that others can take these technologies and apply them to IoT.

Now that Facebook has many of the hardware building blocks in place, one of the next major set of challenges involves the software that brings it all together. “That’s actually where we are really excited because that really plays to the core strengths of the company,” Maguire told me. “We started as a software company. We’ve gotten really good at combining software and hardware for our infrastructure and that was about taking a lot of things that were commodity hardware and bringing them together in unique ways. So this idea of taking building blocks and combining them is not foreign to us.”

Facebook, of course, isn’t the only company working on solving this issue of bringing connectivity to rural areas. When I asked Maguire about Google’s project Loon, which uses balloons instead of drones, he noted that his team is cheering for Google to succeed, too. “Connecting people just helps everyone, I think,” he said. “I love that they are exploring different spaces than we are.” Maguire, however, also noted that his team didn’t choose the balloon approach for a reason. “We want to focus on systems that can station-keep,” he said. “If you are connected to this network, we want to make sure that you have connectivity at all times. If the wind is blowing, it has to be there. […] At low altitude, we want systems to be tethered and we want to make it so that there is propulsion so that in the face of winds they stay stationary to provide that connectivity.”