Magid: The good, the bad and the scary of mind-reading tech

Magid: The good, the bad and the scary of mind-reading tech

I was initially incredulous when I learned that Facebook had acquired Ctrl-Labs, a New York company working on technology to control devices with your mind. How could this possibly work, I wondered. Then, in preparation for my 3-minute daily

Larry Magid 

tech segment for KCBS, I read a bit about the technology and learned how it was indeed possible. As I expected, the anchors on my segment raised the usual concerns about how this could be misused, which prompted me to explain the potential positive uses of the technology without completely dismissing their concerns. Then, after a night’s sleep, I woke up and started thinking and learning more about the work of Ctrl-Labs, which has made me even more excited but also more frightened by what this technology and Facebook’s acquisition could mean.

In a Facebook post, Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth explained what the technology does. “You have neurons in your spinal cord that send electrical signals to your hand muscles telling them to move in specific ways such as to click a mouse or press a button. The wristband will decode those signals and translate them into a digital signal your device can understand, empowering you with control over your digital life.”

In a video presentation at the Slush 2018 conference, Ctrl-Labs co-founder and CEO Thomas Reardon explained how “intention capture … allows us to close the gap between human input and human output.” The spinal cord, he said, “is sort of the USB port of the brain” that transmits the intentions of the brain into electrical signals that the hands (and presumably other parts of our body) can then execute. A wristband has sensors that intercept those signals and send them to a computer or other device that can carry them out. Reardon said that the wrist band is sensing “the impulses that course out of motor neurons that live in your spine and directly turn fibers in your muscles on and off.” The technology, he said, non-invasively listens to those neurons as they send action potential to the muscle and “we can re-create the zeros and ones of motor neurons – the output neurons of the brain” which they feed into a “deep network” to decode your intention.

Perhaps in an attempt to ally our fear, Reardon said that “you are enslaving that network, its working in service to you,” although he didn’t elaborate on that notion, leaving me to wonder whether that network is truly the slave, or perhaps – ultimately – the master.

Reardon showed several examples, starting with a simple exercise of typing on a tabletop and having the device sense the position of his fingers and translate them into the words on a computer screen, even though there was no keyboard or motion detecting camera involved. OK, I get that. Your fingers move to a spot on the table that correlates to a key on a keyboard. But then he showed how you could manipulate a complex video game with your thoughts by having sensors detect your intended moves and transmitting them to the computer as if you were manipulating a joystick or keyboard but without having to move your hand. He emphasized that the technology is sensing “the intention, not the movement.”

Reardon said that the technology doesn’t stop at letting your mind emulate the five fingers on each hand. It can also create a sixth finger or let you interact with a device as if you had as many arms as an octopus

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Facebook’s Bosworth, who will be in charge of this project is also in charge of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality projects. Facebook confirmed Wednesday that it is working on augmented reality glasses, and that it’s developing a project called “Live Maps” to create 3D maps of the world.

Having used both VR and AR glasses, I can understand the advantage of creating a movement free interface that doesn’t require you to use a wireless joy stick or pointing device as many of the current headsets do. But I can also see other uses for Ctrl-Lab’s technology including making tech more accessible to people with disabilities.  In theory, you could do anything with your “hands” even if you don’t have hands or the ability to move your hand. It could also help prevent repetitive stress injuries by allowing you to manipulate a computer or a device without having to stress your hand muscles.

That’s all great, but there are also some frightening aspects of this technology.  It’s not quite mind reading, but it’s a step in that direction because of its ability to turn intentions into action. I wonder if it might be possible for the technology to cause a person to take an action merely by thinking about it. There are thoughts that go through my head that I would never act on.  Even if it’s wishful thinking, it may not be something you would or should carry out.

The privacy implications are also scary if the technology can be used to detect and record brain impulses. I’m not sure how far this could go and whether it may ever be possible to literally record and transcribe thoughts, but – given Facebook’s privacy record – it’s not the sort of technology that I’d want to see it control.

Having said this, I am also quick to remind myself to not fall into a moral panic. The fact that technology has potential evil uses or unintended consequences isn’t a reason to suppress it and lose out of its potential positive uses, but it is a reason to pause and think about its potential for both good and bad before it becomes an actual product.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.

Published at Thu, 26 Sep 2019 10:00:20 +0000