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With “mind-reading” and quantum computing on the horizon, should publishers prepare for a world without screens?

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The move to digital was a drastic change the publishing world is still coming to terms with. The upcoming shifts in technology will make the mobile revolution seem quaint in comparison. 

The switch from paper to screens has itself been a stupendous challenge for many. What happens when even the screens become redundant?

Facebook just acquired, spending somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion, a “brain-machine-interface” startup, CTRL-Labs. The company uses a mix of machine learning and neuroscience to help users manipulate computer interfaces simply by brainpower.

“We know there are more natural, intuitive ways to interact with devices and technology. And we want to build them,” Facebook AR/VR VP Andrew Bosworth wrote in a post announcing the deal.

CTRL-labs has developed a technology that lets people control their devices as a natural extension of movement, translating the wearer’s neural impulses into digital signals. Almost like mind-reading.

It captures your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an imperceptible movement or just by, well, intending to.

Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of AR/VR

“Technology like this has the potential to open up new creative possibilities and reimagine 19th-century inventions in a 21st-century world,” wrote Bosworth. “It can change the way we connect.”

Thomas Reardon, co-founder of CTRL-Labs and the creator of the project that became Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s first web browser, mentioned earlier, “I would like our devices … to be on a million people within three or four years.” And that was before they were acquired by a company that counts users in the billions.

The momentum is building up. 

Just a couple of months ago, Facebook issued a breakdown of recent research on communication without saying a word, detailing their efforts to build a wearable device that lets people type just by imagining what they want to say.

Among the strategies the company is exploring is the use of a pulse oximeter, monitoring neurons’ consumption of oxygen to detect brain activity. The early-stage research taking place today is the first step toward delivering on its promise, the report states.

It’s going to be something completely new, as clean a break from anything that’s come before as the mouse/GUI-based interface was from punch cards, printouts, and teletype machines.

Michael Abrash, Facebook scientist

A decade from now, the ability to type directly from our brains may be accepted as a given,” Facebook says. “Not long ago, it sounded like science fiction. Now, it feels within plausible reach.”

Facebook has also partnered with Ray-Ban parent company Luxottica to bring its Augmented Reality (AR) glasses to market, CNBC reports. The AR glasses are called “Orion” and are being designed to replace smartphones. Facebook is also developing an AI voice assistant that would serve as a user input for the glasses.

Apple is also reportedly working on a similar product that could hit the market as early as next year. And there are talks of whether Amazon should consider acquiring IBM, which perhaps owns the most robust AI platform in the industry.

Google, predictably, is also pushing hard in this technology arms race. 

The company appears to have built the first quantum computer that can carry out calculations beyond the ability of today’s most powerful supercomputers, the Financial Times reported. Google researchers call it a “milestone” that “heralds the advent of a much-anticipated computing paradigm”.

A paper by Google’s researchers seen by the FT, that was briefly posted earlier this week on a Nasa website before being removed, claimed that their processor was able to perform a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today’s most advanced classical computer, known as Summit, approximately 10,000 years.

Madhumita Murgia and Richard Waters, Financial Times

Google researchers predict that the power of quantum machines would expand at a “double exponential rate,” compared to the exponential rate of Moore’s Law, which has driven advances in silicon chips in the first era of computing.

Some believe this to be a watershed moment in the history of technology, which heralds a new era in computing. A leap of this magnitude would have immense ramifications across industries, and it might mean the end of cryptographic secrets, since quantum computers would eventually be able to “crack” even military-grade encryption in mere seconds, rendering all modern cryptography obsolete.

“Google’s recent update on the achievement of quantum supremacy is a notable mile marker,” says the Director of Quantum Hardware at Intel, Jim Clake. “We along with the industry are working to quickly advance all of those areas to realize the true potential of quantum computing.”

Implications for publishers? 

Facebook’s “type by imagining” may lead to a content explosion, on an even larger scale. Just this year, Google unlocked 33% of publisher paywalls. The company’s quantum computing might force a further rethink on paywalls. “Mind reading” and “brain interfacing” will change the way content is consumed. A number of challenges (and opportunities) will come up that we haven’t even conceived of.

Of course, skeptics may say none of this is happening tomorrow. But then again, the industry has been caught unawares before, and is still reeling from the aftermath. 

It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone is made properly aware of the scientific advances,” Facebook says. “Society’s understanding of what’s possible — and what it could mean for people — will need some time to catch up.”

As our interfaces transform, with increasing speed, publishers have to keep abreast of the impending tech revolutions, and not get caught flat-footed as the rules of the game change. 

As technology evolves, so will content distribution and consumption. 

Mobile screens were just the advance guard. 
What’s coming next might literally be “mind” boggling.