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Wearables That Read Your Mind

DATE POSTED:October 12, 2019

The fact that our connected devices are getting to know us pretty well is, by now, well-known. A phone that can unlock a hotel room door. A smartwatch that can call an Uber. A connected car that can not only help the driver find the closest burger joint, but can also order ahead. A voice assistant that can add stuff to a shopping list and then order and arrange for its delivery. These are the same devices that learn what a consumer likes to eat, where they like to go, where they shop and what, when and how often they make purchases.

Wearables take that to another level. By their very nature, they are intended to have an up-close-and-personal relationship with their owners. Wearables don’t only get to know what a consumer does – in some cases, they even come to understand the inner workings of their hearts.

For example, a user of a sufficiently advanced Apple Watch (Series 4 or later) can get access to an FDA-approved electrocardiogram – a feature that has been widely hailed by the medical community as a major breakthrough in life-saving early detection and by consumers as a life-saving benefit.

But would consumers feel the same way if their wearable could also literally read their mind – and then act on those thoughts? What if the wearable is actually an implantable?

It’s an idea that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent half a billion dollars to advance.

Speaking at an industry event last week, Zuckerberg noted that Facebook’s recent acquisition of CTRL-labs was aimed at developing the kind of wearable technology that could directly interface with – and in some cases be controlled – by the human mind. Facebook acquired the New York-based startup two weeks ago for a figure estimated to be between $500 million and $1 billion.

“The goal is to eventually make it so that you can think something and control something in virtual or augmented reality,” Zuckerberg noted in a conversation with Dr. Joe DeRisi and Dr. Steve Quake of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a Bay Area-based research center backed by the Facebook CEO and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

Currently under development is a wristband that will allow people to control devices based on signals from their spinal cord. Zuckerberg noted that the wristband could be the key to a truly hands-free experience someday.

That ability would hinge on the person having an implant embedded directly into their brain to gain access to the motor neurons that govern motion. Using a combination of the neural implant technology, natural biological wiring and the wearable device, the user could control various smart devices and technology with their own thoughts.

As Zuckerberg, Dr. DeRisi and Dr. Quake noted, the technology could be particularly useful to those who have nervous system injuries or issues that limit their physical movement.

“I have enough neural capacity in my motor neurons to probably control another extra hand, it’s just a matter of training that and then they can pick up those signals off of the wrist,” Zuckerberg said. “But if your ability to translate things that are going on in your brain into motor activity is limited, then you need something implanted.”

And, Dr. DeRisi noted, the enhanced version of the tech is even better, in some sense, because of the power that implantables unlock. In theory, implantables could someday be used to decode real-time inner speech that could help people with limited physical or verbal abilities to communicate more effectively.

“That kind of detailed, real-time information has never been possible from surface readings,” DeRisi said. “You actually have to get under the skull and touch neurons.”

The problem, Dr. Quake noted, is that medically speaking, touching those neurons is very dangerous and complicated.

But, perhaps soon, it will be a lot less so.

Because if you’ve found yourself reading this article with a vague sense of déjà vu, feeling certain you heard something about this project on a Saturday morning a few months ago, that sensation is not purely in your head. You did read about something much like this, in this very column – it was just a different tech billionaire who aimed to build technological telepathy.

Elon Musk.

Or, to be more specific, Neuralink – a company in which Elon Musk has invested about $100 million. He was boasting this past summer about its most recent advancement: a small robot capable of implanting ultra-thin “threads” deep in the human brain – tiny, Bluetooth-enabled chips connected to 1,000 wires measuring one-tenth the width of a human hair.

“If you’re going to stick something in a brain, you want it to not be large,” Musk noted.

Those threads will be able to beam their deep brain signals to a computer over the wearer’s ear, from which they can be directed.

Directed to do what, exactly?

Well, that is still being worked out. In some regards, Musk and Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president and co-founder, sound a good deal like Zuckerberg and Drs. DeRisi and Quake – the main and best use of this technology would be helping stroke victims, people with prosthetic limbs or sufferers of neurodegenerative conditions to regain and maintain function. And three-quarters of those people agree that progress will be slow, the challenges will be many and the early advances will be baby steps.

The other quarter of those people are Elon Musk.

Therefore, in much the way that he’s not the only billionaire looking to build his own space force (although he is the only one hoping to colonize Mars and ultimately be buried there), Musk is already taking his characteristic “go big or go home” attitude to this arena as well. Elon believes that one day, technological telepathy will simply be a regular consumer product, used to boost memory, conduct brainwave-based authentication, provide remote storage of thoughts and ideas and enable literal brain-to-brain telepathy between people.

No one will ever argue that Musk lacks imagination or conviction.

But will any of this be appealing for consumers, even if they get the technology and the surgical implantation process down pat?

That, of course, remains the big mystery. Just because consumers like talking to a voice assistant doesn’t necessarily mean they want that assistant in their head and proactively responding to questions they haven’t asked yet.

Plus, we imagine there are several potential kinks to be worked out – for example, whether the brain-reading technology can tell the difference between an idle thought and an actual intention for action. We’ve all literally dreamed about something we want – designer shoes, shiny jewelry, a fancy new phone or just a really good piece of chocolate cake. It is disappointing to wake up and find you don’t have that thing – but we can imagine it would be just plain creepy, and potentially ruinous, to find out one’s implanted wearable had actually ordered the item from Amazon while we were sleeping.

But then, that is today – tomorrow is a different story. When the 21st century began 20 years ago, handing over one’s faceprint or fingerprint without a second thought might have seemed odd – posting all the pictures from your family vacation on a public site where everyone you went to high school with could see you in a bathing suit would have seem ill-advised, and having an extended conversation with a speaker in your house would have been a sure sign that you were working way too hard and were in desperate need of a nice, long rest.

The world changes quickly in the digital era, and behaviors that once would have seemed risky or insane are now just part of any day’s normal business.

So, who knows? Maybe someday soon, you won’t be reading this Saturday column at all. Instead, the thought-activated assistant that lives in your skull will retrieve it from the web and read it to you as soon as you think, “I wonder what the PYMNTS Saturday feature is this week?”

The future is an exciting place.