Image via Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

A project under development by Johns Hopkins’ Laurel-based Applied Physics Lab and Facebook’s top-secret Building 8 would eliminate the need to use one’s hands or even speak to type out thoughts on a keyboard.

Hopkins Applied Physics Lab director Ralph Sammel announced today at Facebook’s F8 conference in San Jose that his team is working with Facebook developers to use advances in neural prosthetics, or technologies designed to perform natural brain functions, to translate thoughts directly to the keyboard.

The collaboration “focuses on developing a silent speech interface that will allow users to type 100 words per minute — five times faster than typing on a smartphone — using only their thoughts,” according to a release from Hopkins.

Basically, users would be able type out their thoughts in rapid-fire fashion without saying anything aloud or performing any physical work.

The Applied Physics Lab-Building 8 partnership began in December 2016, when Facebook picked the lab, Johns Hopkins University as a whole and 15 other universities as research collaborators. Per, Facebook streamlined the partnership process by paying each school a fee on a project-by-project basis to design new technologies with Building 8, rather than using the more prolonged research university partnership process.

The lab’s “Revolutionizing Prosethetics” program was born out of a collaboration with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that produced the most advanced brain-controlled prosthetic limb ever, according to Hopkins. The technology has since been used to give paralyzed patients the ability to perform physical actions, such as eat or, more ambitiously, operate a fighter jet simulator.

The Applied Physics Lab furthered its research by working with Hopkins Medicine on a process to decode information about the meaning of words from brain signals, which can be gathered from electrodes implanted on the surface of the human brain. The next step in APL’s research has been to craft a way to gather those signals in a noninvasive manner (i.e. no electrodes on the brain).

“This program is an excellent example of how APL is transitioning novel technologies developed for Revolutionizing Prosthetics into other domains,” Semmel said in the Hopkins release. “The research agreement with Facebook has also allowed us to expand our pioneering brain–machine interface work, and further combine our expertise in neuroscience with our expertise in optical imaging.”

While a potential commercial application for the typing technology is apparent, researchers also say the system would open new doors for doctors to better understand brain health and neurological processes.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...

2 replies on “Hopkins Lab and Facebook’s Building 8 Creating New Hands-Free, Silent Way to Type”

  1. Fantastic! Soon life will be a solitary experience where true social interaction and any eye contact with a fellow human being can be a thing of the past. People can immerse themselves in their own self-created, self-centered realities. Yippie! I can’t wait.

  2. And imagine the advertising possibilities. Say I’m worried about my elderly mother’s health. Facebook can just put ads for coffins and bargain funeral services straight into my brain. Say there’s a school shooting and being shot is on my mind, ads for guns and bullet proof vests right to my brain. Say I have cancer and am getting chemotherapy, ads for cheap wigs and Ensure. I cannot wait!

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