Back in the 60's, the CIA ran a covert program called 'MKUltra', which was tasked with running human experiments for the purposes of developing drugs and procedures that would "weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control". It sounds like the stuff of science fiction (which it incidentally has become), but this research actually took place, and had lasting impacts for various participants.
Among those experiments was one which involved brain implants, with dogs reportedly made to run and stop without verbal or physical commands, purely through these implants connected into their brains.
That's pretty freaky, right? That's what this latest Facebook news made me think of, with the potential implications of this area of investigation seemingly veering into very questionable, very concerning territory.
As per Bloomberg:
"The closely held four-year-old startup, which has dozens of employees and has raised tens of millions in venture capital, uses a bracelet to measure neuron activity in a subject’s arm to determine movement that person is thinking about, even if they aren’t physically moving. That neuron activity is then translated into movement on a digital screen."
Facebook is reportedly paying between $500 million and $1 billion for CTRL-Labs, which it will bring into its experimental research teams to continue its work on the next phase of digital connection. Which could be connecting Facebook directly into your brain - which doesn't sound like a particularly great idea.
Facebook has actually been working on similar for some time. Back in 2017, at its F8 Developer conference for that year, The Social Network revealed that it had a 60 person team working on a new system which would enable users to type words on screen, simply by thinking of what they wanted to say.
That announcement came from Facebook's secretive 'Building 8' division, which has since been disbanded - but the acquisition of CTRL-Labs shows that this is still an active area of investigation, Facebook is still working on tools that would be able to, essentially, read your thoughts.
Of course, there are benefits to such a system. Facebook has noted that such innovation would help people with severe paralysis, similar to how its automated image recognition technology helps the visually impaired.
There are clearly beneficial usage examples for such - but the bigger question that no doubt everyone is now thinking is 'should we trust Facebook to invade our very thoughts?'
The simple answer, right now, is no. Facebook has shown time and time again that it's not particularly good at thinking through the full range of potential implications of its tools - whether that's how people's personal data can be misused, how political operatives can manipulate users through its ad system, how that ad system itself can be used for discriminatory targeting. Facebook is very ambitious, and rightfully so, but it's repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn't put enough weight or consideration into the potential negatives of its functions.
Given this, even imaging the potential impacts of Facebook brain chips brings back those creepy MKUltra vibes.
That said, it's a long way off. Facebook, really, is investing in the future, the next generation of digital consumers, the next level of technological connectivity. Facebook's not going to come out with Matrix-style 'jack-in' connectors for your brain this week, or even this decade, necessarily. But the acquisition does raise a level of concern as to where Facebook is headed, and what safeguards and protections regulators have in place to maintain control over such experiments as they evolve.
And while the aforementioned examples highlight Facebook's own flaws, they also underline the failures of our oversight bodies to predict the same outcomes, and police them effectively. And given that, there should be significant concern over Facebook's advances - both in terms of what they can do, and what they're allowed to put to market.
Again, there is time, but Facebook may well need more rigorous external constraints as it moves into this next phase. Here's hoping that necessary steps are undertaken to provide relevant oversight.