Facebook has developed a prototype of a system users can control with their mind.

The technology has been trialed by a patient with locked-in syndrome (LIS), a neurological disorder that leaves her trapped in her body while mentally aware but unable to communicate.

Image: iStock/luchezar
Image: iStock/luchezar

An array of electrodes was implanted into the patient which record her neurons firing when she imagines moving a cursor over a digital keyboard on a screen. A silent speech interface gives her private communication using only her brainwaves. It currently functions at a speed of eight words per minute, but Facebook is aiming to increase this to 100 WPM. The company plans to roll it out for commercial use in the future.

The project was on display at Facebook’s London engineering hub in the heart of the capital’s creative hub of Shoreditch. It is one of five major engineering sites around the world and the largest outside the US.

Facebook's director of product Kyle McGinn was on hand to discuss the innovations developed by its London team of developers, and provide insight on the social network’s developing strategy. He also explained the Facebook approach to a topic of growing controversy: how the company responds to users at risk of suicide.

The subject gained mainstream media attention following a spate of suicides streamed live on the social network. In March Facebook announced it was trialing tools that use pattern recognition algorithms to spot posts containing signs of suicidal thoughts.

"What's our responsibility when someone says they're going take their life tonight?” asked McGinn. "The best thing to do in those kinds of situations is to bring a really close-knit community of friends that you have together and into that conversation. If someone displays something like that and we detect it, we will ensure that your closest friends get very good visibility of that act, because they are the people most likely to bring you back from that position."

He added that Facebook also works with organisations around the world such as the Samaritans to make sure it's easy for users to anonymously contact them for support.

Facebook innovations

The facility was divided into three separate areas. Downstairs in the “Connect” room were displays of the Safety Check system designed to show users are safe during a crisis and advertising Facebook's scheme to connect local businesses with customers. There was another display offering basic tips on how to spot fake news. 

Facebook has experimented with flagging fake stories, but its efforts have been criticised for failing to curb the spread of false information.

Either side of the banner were demonstrations of how Facebook Live is used to create a direct dialogue with elected officials, and a video of the Aquila unmanned aerial vehicle that is based in Bridgewater. The drone was developed by aeronautical engineers to stay airborne for three months and deliver high-speed connectivity to remote areas of the world. There was also an enticing selection of crustless sandwiches and branded cupcakes.

Upstairs in the "Experience" room, under exposed wooden beams, was a collection of instant games, the aforementioned brainwaves device and a demonstration of the Oculus VR technology it acquired for $2bn in 2014.  The Oculus Rooms team in London is developing technology to bringing people together in virtual spaces.

Across the metal gangway was the final exhibition room, named "Share". It included demonstrations of the Safety Centre security and privacy features, the 360 photo and the Boomerang feature for Instagram that ties together a burst of camera shots, and AR technology that is currently under development.

Facebook's future in London

Facebook has a long history in London, locating its first overseas office there in 2007. Later this year the company will double its headcount from 500 to 1,000 at a new headquarters in the city. 

"We have a hefty investment in London in our development audience," said McGinn. "These are the tools that engineers around the globe use to build the Facebook platform. That's everything from compilers to type checkers to the large testing systems that we have."

The commitment to London remains intact but the strategy has adjusted s the company has expanded in size and the services it provides, he said. 

"If you tracked Facebook cultural memes over the past decade, you would see that ten years ago our slogan was mainly 'move fast and break things'," said Facebook engineering director Brian O'Sullivan. "These days it's still 'move fast', but the idea now is 'move fast and make it good'. Do things that are high quality.

"Teams that I work with are responsible for making that possible. These systems have to work at a tremendous scale and a tremendous pace and with a high degree of fidelity."

Two miles down the road that day at the [email protected] conference at Stuid Spaces a trio of development announcements were announced to support this strategy: the Jupiter job-matching service designed to maximise efficiency by pairing backend work with hardware resources, the AL declarative language to create bug checkers for static analyser Infer, and a resource management system to test software codenamed One World.