CTRL-Labs: Facebook didn't buy a billion-dollar, brain-scanning startup

Facebook's public trust issues create a perception of a nefarious agenda with the recent acquisition of a New York-based startup that uses electrical muscle signals to control a virtual hand.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Facebook's recent acquisition of CTRL-Labs led to many news headlines claiming it had acquired a "brain-scanning" technology. Some reports that connected the dots claimed it would give the social media giant an ability to read people's minds.

Countless headlines described CTRL-Labs as brain-controlled computing, claiming it's building mind control software, neuron controller technology, and control computers with brain signals. In short, Facebook wants to take control of our thoughts.

It's understandable that people assign all sorts of nefarious agendas to Facebook. The social media giant is in the public dog house over its targeted advertising technology and allowing it to be abused for political purposes. So, buying CTRL-Labs, which has a wristband that taps into electrical signals created by muscles triggered by neurons, sounds like brain scanning and that Facebook could have the ability to figure out what you are thinking.

Except it won't. The technology is much less sinister and more mundane.


Thomas Reardon (right), CEO and co-founder at CTRL-Labs, and Josh Duyan (left), chief strategy officer at CTRL-Labs.

CTRL-Labs picks up electrical signals generated by muscles in your wrists as you move your hand and fingers, and this activates a virtual hand that can be used as an input device.

You can train yourself to not move your muscles, but you still need to imperceptibly activate those muscles with intent. As Thomas Reardon, CEO of CTRL-Labs explained, when I met with him last year, the wristband scans your wrist muscles -- it does not scan your brain.

Must read:  CTRL-Labs: Capturing intent without moving a muscle

"By focusing on the wrist, we don't have to deal with trying to find those signals in the brain, which is a noisy place," he said. 

There are researchers trying to decipher signals generated by the brain, but CTRL-Labs uses a different approach, by scanning for the electrical signals generated by muscles in your wrist.

While it's true that the signal to activate your muscles originates in the brain, so, therefore, it could be argued that it is picking up brain signals by proxy -- all you capture is an intent to move a muscle. You cannot pick up what a person is thinking. And the person has to have an "intent" to move the muscle. 


Virtual hands by CTRL-Labs.

Facebook cannot spy on a person's thoughts through the wristband.

Whatever you can do today with your hands and fingers is what CTRL-Labs provides, such as using hands in a virtual reality setting -- instead of gripping controllers -- playing a virtual piano and typing on a virtual keyboard.

A computer keyboard requires exactly the same muscles, yet it is not considered a brain-scanning device, even though it translates thoughts into text.

Facebook knows a lot about its users, but it cannot read their minds. This acquisition is not as menacing as it has been portrayed.

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