A brief history of Facebook’s plan to read your mind

Now establishing technology that will transfer your thoughts directly onto your computer, the platform has long been obsessed with mind-reading

Facebook wants to take over the world – not just in an attempt to be omnipotent (and rich), but in order to actually live inside everyone’s brains. The platform’s latest development sees it edge closer towards this goal by way of technology that can read your mind.

In a report published this week on Nature Communications, researchers hired by Facebook have revealed how their machine-learning algorithm can decode brain activity, instantly transcribing what a person is saying into text on a computer screen.

Although terrifying given Facebook’s fraught history with privacy, the platform claims its interest in such technology is primarily medical, namely to help people with brain damage and paralysis speak again. When viewed from this angle, the breakthrough technology is potentially revolutionary. 

The social media site’s interest in mind-reading stretches further back than today’s announcement, with first talks of the technology arising in 2017. Here, we’ll explore Facebook’s history with thought decoding, outline how far it’s come, and attempt to determine whether the platform has good or bad motivations.


Facebook first touched on its plans to develop mind-reading software back in 2017 at the company’s annual F8 developer conference. Also addressing its plans for artificial intelligence (an AI-infused camera) and virtual reality (a ‘hang-out’ app called Facebook Spaces), the platform revealed its new ‘silent speech communication’ project.

Introduced as “a system that will let people type with their brains”, the technology’s goal was eventually to be able to type 100 words per minute directly from a user’s brain, effectively enabling someone to transcribe words they’ve imagined (Solange?) at the speed of speaking them out loud. In Facebook’s words: “It’s a way to communicate with the speed and flexibility of your voice and the privacy of text.”


The company has been researching its brain-computer interface (BCI) technology over the past two years through its AR/VR research organisation, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL). Working with university researchers and a neurosurgeon, the lab is focussed on creating a non-invasive communication system, as opposed to building on previous designs that need to be surgically implanted – though, as explained in a blog post, this dream is still a distant reality.

In the Facebook-funded paper published on Nature Communications on Tuesday (July 30), scientists at the University of California San Francisco outlined the method and results of their early research. The study asked epileptic patients – who already have recording electrodes in their brains ahead of surgery – to answer a list of multiple-choice questions out loud. The team’s machine-learning algorithm was able to identify the questions being asked 75 per cent of the time, and the participants’ answers 61 per cent of the time. Although it’s a first in BCI research, the algorithm is currently only able to identify a limited set of words and phrases.

The blog post also reveals work on a headset that aims to detect brain activity by monitoring oxygen levels in the brain. The company hopes this technology will one day fit in their previously-announced (but still TBC) augmented reality (AR) glasses, writing: “The question of input for all-day wearable AR glasses remains to be solved, and BCI represents a compelling path towards a solution.” Glasses that can read your mind? No thanks TBH.


The platform regularly addresses its medical intentions throughout its published research, stating on its blog that the technology’s aim is to “dramatically improve the lives of people living with paralysis”. However, Facebook also discusses its intention to enhance community – ironically it wants to get you off your phone. “Rather than looking down at a phone screen or breaking out a laptop,” the blog post explained of its mind-reading glasses, “we can maintain eye contact and retrieve useful information and context without ever missing a beat.” 


Of course billionaire weirdo Elon Musk is also working on mind-reading software. Last month, the entrepreneur’s startup Neuralink announced its brain reading ‘threads’ which also aim to connect human brains to computers. Unlike Facebook’s end goal of non-invasive software, Musk’s threads have to be embedded in the brain – but don’t worry because he announced there will be robots to do it for you!


You have to look at this in two ways in order to establish how terrified you should be. Any technology that can read your mind – especially software created by data thieves Facebook – poses a huge risk for society, and could eventually be used by corrupt governments for devastatingly widespread evil.

However, focusing on the undeniable medical benefits, the technology is hugely exciting, and should be heralded as such. In an interview with the BBC, the study’s co-author Eddie Chang expanded: “Currently, patients with speech loss due to paralysis are limited to spelling words out very slowly using residual eye movements or muscle twitches to control a computer interface. But, in many cases, information needed to produce fluent speech is still there in their brains. We just need the technology to allow them to express it.” 

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the medical benefits outweigh the potential dangers. But one thing’s for sure: with Facebook at the helm, we should definitely be sceptical before throwing out good old fashioned conversation for a silent, mind-reading glasses lunch.