Meta, Apple are investing in tech that can decode your thoughts

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AI can now decode your brain activity—a fancy way of saying mind reading. Big tech companies like Meta (META) are backing research into this field, including products that can decode thoughts without requiring surgery. The big question: what does our world look like if big tech companies can read your mind?

Tech companies are building off neurotech advancements in the medical world. Meta is backing a team of neuroscientists whose research uncovered nonsurgical ways to detect brain activity and speech to interpret your thoughts. In 2022, Apple (AAPL) also filed a patent for AirPods that uses EEG technology to measure biosignals and electrical activity of a user’s brain. Noninvasive mind reading can be revolutionary in medicine for patients – it can also be used by big tech for consumer-facing products that put privacy at risk.

Neurorights advocates believe our thoughts are the last piece of data we have left to ourselves. That’s why they are now fighting for legislation that would safeguard our mental privacy while tech companies continue funding brain-scanning research.

If you’re going to future-proof your portfolio, you need to know what’s NEXT in the business of neurotechnology. In this series, Yahoo Finance will feature stories that give a glimpse at the future, and show how companies are making big moves today that will matter tomorrow.

For more on our NEXT series, click here, and tune in to Yahoo Finance Live for more expert insight and the latest market action, Monday through Friday.

Video Transcript

Hey, Rodney, I’m Madison.

It’s really great to meet you.

This is Rodney and he’s living with em atrophic lateral sclerosis or a LS A disease that gradually inhibits all movement, including your ability to communicate.

But Rodney has a special technology in plant in his brain.

It takes signals from the brain and translates them into commands on an external device like computer keys.

In other words, it reads his mind.

Was it scary to be the first person to get the stent road?

Not really?

That’s cool.

That’s pretty brave, but he’s talking to me right now all the way from Australia.

Thanks to the stent road, an A I powered brain computer interface developed by Synchron, a neuro tech company backed by Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

This may sound familiar as Elon Musk is also working on neuralink.

The company introduced the first patient to receive its implant.

It was like uh using the force on the cursor.

The strode and neuralink are both examples of B CS that are implanted inside the body.

But according to experts, the next big innovation in the space is portable products that live completely outside of the body like this, this spectrum of devices falls under the umbrella of neurotechnology, which is any technology used to either record signals from the brain and translate them into technical control commands or to manipulate brain activity.

Neurotechnology is on the agenda for big tech companies like Meta and Apple and A I is speeding up advancements in neuro tech which can be empowering for patients.

But as the tech becomes less invasive and more for everyday consumers, it could put our most valuable data, our thoughts at risk.

This is our final fortress of privacy and we’ve given up every other aspect of privacy that exists after first of its kind, neuro rights legislation was passed in Colorado.

Experts and activists are working to make federal policies about our thought data.

This is what’s next in neurotechnology and data privacy meta is funding a team of neuroscientists who are pushing this field of research even further by using A I to understand how humans process language.

The company says the goal is to help people who have suffered traumatic brain injury to communicate.

We did a research where participants watch images in a new imaging scanner.

And the goal is to train an A I system to reconstruct what they see solely from brain activity.

And what’s surprising is that it, it works much better than what we anticipated.

Volunteers sat inside a magneto encephalography or meg machine which measures the magnetic field generated when neurons fire over the course of several hours, volunteers viewed each image for 1.5 seconds.

And the A I system learned those meg recordings.

This is image that was flashed in front of participants.

And this is the image that the A I scanner was able to recreate.

And so you can see that the images on the right are never quite accurate, but still, it does capture a lot of semantic properties.

Like when it is an animal, it tends to be an animal that suggests that these magnet holography signals, this brain signal that can be captured in the lab can be used to recreate the image that they perceive.

The first reaction was OK.

There is something we must have leaked some training data in the test sets.

That was my first reaction.

OK. Let’s try to find where we could have had some bugs that could explain the quality of these results.

You thought they were so good.

There must have been a bug when I look at these images, they did such a good job, it looks really good.

So it makes me wonder like is this a mind reading technology?

So this is not a mind reading technology at a given instance, what we can try to do is reconstruct the image that they see at the given moment.

So we are really decoding perception.

What has been shown in other research is that trying to decode what people think at a given instance on their own without being triggered by something is actually much, much harder in regards to the relationship with meta.

Does that impact the outcome of any of the research?

So the goal of our research is not to have a product down the line.

This is a research which fits a portfolio of research projects at the goal is really to figure out the key principles of intelligence and what makes humans so able at learning things.

His team is part of fair, which stands for fundamental A I research meta has been studying how A I learns language since before the company changed its name that F and Fair used to stand for Facebook, but the team is not attached to any medical or academic institution.

King stresses that consumer facing products are not the end goal of his research at the same time, meta is continuing to work on consumer neuro tech.

I think we’ll start getting some consumer neural interfaces soon.

I’m not talking about something that jacks into your brain.

I’m talking about something that you wear on your wrist that can basically read neural signals that your brain sends through your nerves to your hand to, to basically move it in, in different subtle ways that are maybe not perceptible to people around you.

But we’re basically able to read those signals and, and be able to use that to control your glasses or other computing devices.

And I think that’s going to be pretty wild since 2021 meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has touted an armband that sends these like nervous system signals to, to your, your your muscles.

And you can actually pick those up with um with a, with an emg wristband, emg measures muscle responses or electrical activity in response to a nerve stimulation of the muscle.

They have a prototype of the wrist device.

It’s something that they’re investing heavily in with reality labs.

Billions of dollars go towards that.

They are making progress in certain areas, whether it’s their A RVR efforts or these kinds of efforts that will eventually feed into what Mark Zuckerberg sees as the future, if not necessarily of the metaverse.

Then of technology in 2022 Apple filed a patent for airpods that use electroencephalogram or EEG technology.

The proposed earbuds could contain over two dozen electrodes that are configured to measure bios signals and electrical activity of a user’s brain.

I think in ear eeg is going to be much richer data than emg on the rest for brain health and wellness, which is a huge potential market when it comes to the products that are on the marketplace right now?

Are they over promising or are they accurately to a degree with some noise reading our minds or are they actually decoding?

You know, like your private ruminations?

Like you’re thinking about what am I gonna make for those kinds of things?

Aren’t being decoded by these today?

What they’re decoding are basic brain states that can be averaged across the entire brain.

So things like are you sleepy?

Are you paying attention?

Are you stressed?

Basic emotions, are you happy or sad?

Those are metrics that can be picked up and in some ways that’s mind reading, right?

It’s still revealing things about your inner states, but it’s not the kind of robust thoughts which isn’t to say that isn’t possible.

It is to say that no, none of the consumer based eeg devices that are on the marketplace can yet do that.

According to one estimate, the neuro tech industry was valued around $15 billion in 2023.

And it’s projected to reach over $55 billion by 2033.

This comes as A I has fueled earnings growth for the biggest tech companies, tech giants like alphabet, NVIDIA and Amazon have all seen double digit gains this year following increased A I investment as A I powered technology accelerate advancements in both medical and consumer facing neuro tech.

One analyst says investors should look at companies that are prioritizing privacy if you can monetize that data safely.

I mean, that would be a great play for a lot of people.

I mean, if you actually, you know, provided the right product and service, I think people just don’t understand what it means to live in a world of complete brain transparency.

The one space we have for mental reprieve is really, you know, our brains and mental states.

It’s the kind of final piece of the puzzle.

Doctor Rafael Yuste is a professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Columbia University.

After years of research, he discovered a way to control the thoughts of mice using lasers.

This was actually my Oppenheimer moment.

But at the same time, I felt whatever you can do in a mass today, you could do in a human tomorrow.

He basically did inception in real life and it scared him so much that he started the Neuro Rights Foundation which says it works to protect people from the potential misuse or abuse of neurotechnology.

The foundation recently evaluated the privacy practice of 30 major consumer neuro tech companies selling a range of devices including headbands, bracelets and glasses for activities like sleep meditation and gaming.

Upon reviewing the consumer user agreements.

The foundation determined that 30 out of 30 companies takes possession of all the data of the user.

This is not dissimilar from most privacy agreements that users are familiar with which allow tech companies to collect your data.

The difference is these companies are collecting your neural data and Dr Yuste says that could warrant additional provay protections.

The study found that over 66% of neuro tech companies policies mentioned they can share data with third parties while 30% of companies are unclear on the matter of data sharing, that third party could be a company could be whoever they want, they could be a foreign agent.

So from our point of view, this is not OK. Over half of the companies included, don’t even mention neural data in the privacy documents making it unclear whether that data would be protected.

The current regulation of commercial neurotechnology is being treated as consumer electronics.

Take Apple, for example, according to the company privacy policy, personal data is any data that relates to an identified or identifiable individual or that is linked or lingual to them by Apple.

This includes data like your email address, location, bank details and search history products.

Like the Apple watch can also collect your health data like your sleep time, heart rate and respiratory rate.

But at no point in Apple’s privacy policy is neural data mentioned that airpods patent came after Ceo Tim Cook announced the company’s focus on health care.

I believe if you zoom out into the future and you look back and you ask the question, what was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?

It will be about health health data that can reveal a lot about an individual but also generate a massive amount of personal information.

When they can correlate all of that information with the neeeg data.

Suddenly they have a treasure trove of information to not have you just close the circles for you know how many steps you’ve taken a day or how physically active you’ve been, but your stress levels and your cognitive fitness to really correlate what’s happening in our brains with all kinds of neurological disease and wellness kind of metrics.

Neuro rights advocates say advancements in neuro tech in recent years require urgency in the form of immediate regulation to protect our privacy and brains from being hacked, manipulated and attacked the neuro Rights foundation developed a framework for potential neuro rights policy focused on mental privacy, personal identity, maintaining free will protection from bias and fair access to neuro tech.

For those who want it, we want to develop neurotechnology.

We think it’s good for humanity, but we want to do it in a responsible fashion.

This is about responsible innovation, innovation that could already be helping people at least according to synchron, there’s millions of people, almost 8 million people here in the United States alone that have some type of motor impairment that where it becomes a real challenge to use devices that we take for granted every day.

Like everybody walks with a phone, technologies like this can really start to aid for those that can’t do that even if it’s tiring has the device made communicating easier for you overall.

Yes, I think that’s the one thing that people really don’t understand is that this is not like 20 years out, it’s not even 10 years out.

II I think we’re in a shorter timeline than that.

For Farahani.

The speed of innovation requires quick policy action.

Her framework favors a broader approach that argues for more privacy overall with a right to self determination over our brain and mental experiences that would give people a right, be able to both access and use the technologies if they choose to do so a right to mental privacy as an explicit part of the right to privacy.

And that would mean that we’d have a right against interception and interference with even the automatic processes in our brains and then a much more robust right to freedom of thought.

And I think of thought is like really the mind reading stuff, right?

It’s like what you’re thinking and feeling and being able to have a right against the interception, the manipulation and punishment of those thoughts regulators and governments are beginning to take action on this with the help of Doctor Yuste.

In 2021 Chile became the first nation to amend its constitution to protect the right to mental privacy.

And we will Mexico and Brazil have also proposed constitutional amendments for neural rights domestically, Colorado passed a bill that expanded the state’s Privacy Act to include neural rights.

The first of its kind in the US.

Similar legislation is on the table in states like California and Minnesota.

What is your biggest hope for what this industry looks like?

10 years from now?

My biggest hope is that it is a tool of empowerment for individuals that people have really the ability to control their own data, that we have a system of trust and rights that strongly favor individuals and their right to cognitive liberty and they’re able to use the insights to improve their brain and mental experiences, their mental well being and mental flourishing.

What do you hope the device will accomplish long term?

Hopefully, it will get to more people.