I can’t remember when, but once upon a time my good friend Fredrick Ombako asked on his Facebook timeline if Facebook is capable of reading our thoughts. This he asked because on that day he had thought of something then immediately after he logged onto Facebook that very thing was the first advert he saw. I was reminded of that question today when after talking about refurbished desktops over phone, the first advert I saw immediately after logging to Facebook is an advert about cheap desktops and laptops. But these are two separate issues – one is Can Facebook read our thoughts? And the second is, “Can Facebook listen to our conversations?”
An article appearing on Business Insider terms the idea that Facebook listens to our conversations as an absurd conspiracy, an absurd conspiracy because when this conspiracy went viral in 2016, Facebook issued a statement reading in part, “Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information not what you’re talking out loud about.” What Facebook says must however be taken with a pinch of salt. The same article goes ahead to clarify that Facebook is indeed capable of listening to sounds in your environment, and use information from the sound (music) to “share data with Facebook based on your phone’s mic”. Then somehow Facebook should be ingenious enough to differentiate between musical sounds and ordinary conversations.
Despite evidence leading to the conclusion that Facebook listens to conversations, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg went ahead to deny these allegations at the famous congress hearing that was to question him regarding Facebook’s Privacy Policies and the infamous Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Senator Gary Peters asked Zuckerberg, “Something that I’ve been hearing a lot from folks who have been coming up to me and talking about a kind of experience they’ve had where they’re having a conversation with friends not on the phone, just talking. And then they see ads popping up fairly quickly on their Facebook. I’ve heard constituents fear that Facebook is mining audio from their mobile devices for the purposes of ad targeting which I think speaks to the lack of trust that we’re seeing here. Does Facebook listen to people’s conversations?” “No.” Zuckerberg answered, calling it a “conspiracy theory.”
Whether or not Facebook listens to people’s conversations, which I believe they do, and this is something you can test by having a conversation over a product/service that is likely being advertised on Facebook but that you haven’t shown interest in before, the fact is that Facebook is listening to conversations – technically so. If they can, they are most probably doing it. But, the big question remains, Can Facebook read our thoughts?
The idea that Facebook can read people’s thoughts is rather far fetched. The technology for reading people’s thoughts, although being developed, is many years from ready; and definitely our current mobile phones or other forms of computational devices are far from being equipped with sensors to read brainwaves. So no, there is no way Facebook could be reading anyone’s thoughts, not right now at least, but this is not to say Mark Zuckerberg’s doesn’t want to, he actually wants to. Responding to a question he was asked 4 years ago during a Q&A session he hosted at his Facebook Page that asked,“Also in 10 years time what’s your view on the world where do you think we all will be from a technology perspective and social media?” Zuckerberg answered, “In the future we’ll probably still carry phones in our pockets, but I think we’ll also have glasses on our faces that can help us out throughout the day and give us the ability to share our experiences with those we love in completely immersive and new ways that aren’t possible today.”
A year earlier, Zuckerberg had bought the Virtual Reality Startup Oculus Rift for $2 billion with the sole purpose of making it disrupt how we share our experiences on Facebook. By 2015 and even now the main ways of sharing our experiences have been through status updates (what’s on your mind) and photos. Videos come in at a distant third. The next frontier, according to Zuckerberg, is to be through sharing reality virtually where for example two people can have talk in a far away city where neither of them is present physically, but both are present virtually. The next disruption would come in form of sharing thoughts and feelings, “We’ll have the power to share our full sensory and emotional experience with people whenever we’d like,” Zuckerberg wrote. It goes without saying that when Zuckerberg makes it possible for technologies like Oculus Rift to read and transmit thoughts and feelings, Facebook will be ready to tap into the thoughts and feelings to provide the zombies with personalized ads – and they will be very personal.
The breakthrough for reading human thoughts was announced just 4 days ago when on July 31st 2019 scientists backed by Facebook announced that they can now read thoughts. “A team from the University of California San Francisco worked with volunteers who already had electrodes placed on the surface of their brains to gather data ahead of major surgery. The researchers were then able to use machine learning to recognise the ‘sound’ of responses to questions and ‘decode’ the contents of brain transmissions”, wrote Jasper Hamill at Metro. The research is funded by Facebook Reality Labs, which wants to develop a non-invasive brain interface which will allow people to type by simply thinking about what they want to write. In as much as the scientists behind the research are telling the public not to worry about the technology being used by big corporations like Facebook to read private thoughts, Mark Zuckerberg himself has publicly admitted that that is exactly what he would love to do.
The answer therefore to the question, “Can Facebook read our thoughts”, is yes but not now. The technology is already available, but not commercially viable yet. Maybe in 2025 VR technologies like Oculus Rift will come with thought reading capabilities.