Facebook buys startup working on mind-control of machines

A screen grab from a CTRL-labs video shows Thomas "T.R." Reardon, CEO and co-founder of CTRL-labs, introducing the New York-based startup developing brain-machine interface hardware. CTRL-labs video via YouTube)
Updated 24 September 2019

Facebook buys startup working on mind-control of machines

  • Facebook said it intends to use the neural interface technology of CTRL-labs in developing a wristband that connects to other devices intuitively
  • The wristband will translate impulses into signals a device can comprehend

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook on Monday said it had made a deal to buy a startup working on ways to command computers or other devices using thought instead of taps, swipes, or keystrokes.
CTRL-labs will become part of Facebook Reality Labs with an aim at perfecting the technology and getting it into consumer products, according to Andrew Bosworth, vice president of augmented and virtual reality at the California-based social network.
“We know there are more natural, intuitive ways to interact with devices and technology,” Bosworth said in a post at Facebook announcing the acquisition.
“And we want to build them. The vision for this work is a wristband that lets people control their devices as a natural extension of movement.”
Bosworth explained that the wristband will decode electrical impulses such as those sent to hand muscles telling them to move certain ways, such as clicking a computer mouse or pressing a button.
The wristband will translate impulses into signals a device can comprehend, having thoughts rather than mouse clicks or button presses prompt actions on computers, according to Facebook.
“It captures your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an imperceptible movement or just by, well, intending to,” Bosworth said.
“Technology like this has the potential to open up new creative possibilities and reimagine 19th century inventions in a 21st century world.”
He spoke of how thought-commanded interactions might dramatically alter how people experience augmented or virtual reality scenarios, which currently feature hand-held controls.
Facebook did not disclose financial terms of the deal to buy New York-based CTRL-labs, but unconfirmed media reports said it paid more than $500 million.
After Facebook bought virtual-reality gear startup Oculus in early 2014 in a deal valued at $2 billion, social network co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg heralded the technology as the next major computing platform.
Oculus has since built a line of virtual reality gear, pushing down the price and eliminating the need to be plugged in to a computer with its Quest VR headset.
In Early 2017, Facebook announced projects aimed at allowing users to use their minds to type messages or their skin to hear words.
The projects were the focus of a team of scientists, engineers, and system integrators with a goal of “creating a system capable of typing 100 words-per-minute straight from your brain,” Facebook said at the time.
Such brain-computer interface technology currently involves implanting electrodes, but Facebook wanted to use sensors that could be worn to eliminate the need to surgically intrude on the brain.
Such technology could for example let people fire off text messages or emails by thinking, instead of needing to interrupt what they are doing to use smartphone touchscreens.


Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

Updated 15 August 2020

Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

  • As precious metal prices soar, Turks rush to buy amid economic uncertainty and a volatile currency

ISTANBUL: Hasan Ayhan followed his wife’s instructions last week and took their savings to buy gold at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar as Turks scooped up bullion worth $7 billion in a just a fortnight.

With memories of a currency crisis which rocked Turkey’s economy only two years ago fresh in his mind, the retired police officer was among those playing it safe as he queued in the city’s sprawling market, where a screen showed the gold price rise by one Turkish lira ($0.1366) in just 10 minutes.

“I think it is the best investment right now so I converted my dollars to buy gold,” the 57-year-old said. “I might withdraw my lira and buy gold with it too, but I am scared to go to the bank right now because of coronavirus.”

The day after Ayhan bought his gold on Aug. 6, the lira hit a historic low and remains skittish, laying bare concerns that Turkey’s reserves have been badly depleted by market interventions, which are showing signs of fizzling out.

Turks traditionally use gold for savings and there may be 5,000 tons of it “under mattresses,” with more added after the recent buying spree, Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, deputy head of an Istanbul gold shops association, said.

Although bullion has never been more expensive, vendors at the Grand Bazaar said almost no one was selling their gold jewelry. There are only buyers.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Currency touched record lows in three volatile weeks.
  • Local holdings of hard currencies at all-time high.
  • All are buyers at Grand Bazaar, despite expensive gold.

“I’ve been chatting with hundreds of people who are thinking about selling their cars or houses to invest in gold,” vendor Gunay Gunes said.

In the last three weeks, as selling gripped the lira, local holdings of hard assets such as dollars and gold jumped $15 billion to a record of nearly $220 billion.

There is no evidence suggesting people are about to pull savings from banks, and this week the lira has hovered around 7.3 versus the dollar, although it remains among the worst emerging-market performers this year.

Demand has eased since Turks withdrew some $2 billion in hard foreign cash from their banks during a March-May period in which a lockdown was imposed and the lira hit its last low. Analysts say that if Ankara cannot boost confidence in the currency, which has fallen almost 20 percent this year, import-heavy Turkey risks inflation and even a balance of payments crisis that will worsen fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Given foreign investors now have only a small stake in Turkish assets, they say the key for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is convincing Turks to stop turning to the perceived stability of dollars and gold.

The central bank and treasury did not immediately comment on the dollarization trend or any policy response.

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, said on Wednesday the lira’s competitiveness was more important than exchange rate volatility.

The central bank has effectively borrowed on local dollar liquidity to fuel foreign exchange market interventions, which are meant to stabilize the lira.

Through Turkish state banks, which together are “short” foreign exchange by $12 billion, the central bank has sold over $110 billion since last year. In turn, the bank’s gross FX buffer has fallen by nearly half this year to below $47 billion, its lowest in years.

The central bank has said its reserves naturally fluctuate in stressful periods, and the treasury says the bank intervenes at times to stabilize the currency.

But ratings agencies say Ankara should take decisive steps, such as an interest rate hike, to rebuild reserves and restore confidence. Otherwise, rising current account deficits and possible debt defaults could tarnish a solid reputation for meeting foreign obligations.

“Locals don’t want to keep Turkish lira, they’ve been dollarizing and buying gold. Turks have hardly ever done that,” said Shamaila Khan, New York-based head of EM debt strategy at AllianceBernstein, which manages $600 billion. “That is why you need proactive policies because if you get to that stage where locals are unwilling to keep their money in the bank then you’re heading to a balance of payments crisis. That’s when the alarm bells will start ringing.” 

Some banks imposed fees on withdrawals this week, while the central bank has curbed cheap credit channels it opened to ease the coronavirus fallout. Yet while lira deposits now earn more than the 8.25 percent policy rate, their real return is negative with inflation at 11.8 percent.

Traders say such backdoor tightening needs to reach 11.25 percent to stabilize the lira, which has nearly halved in value since early 2018.

Market expectations have risen for a formal rate hike that economists say would reinforce central bank independence, even while it could slow economic recovery.

Politics may stand in the way.Erdogan, whose popularity has dipped this year, holds the view that high rates cause inflation, and sacked the last central bank governor for disobedience.

He said on Monday he hoped market rates would fall further.

But firms such as System Denim, which imports materials and makes clothes for companies like Zara and Diesel, are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Owner Seref Fayat said he converted his 4 percent euro-denominated loans to lira at 10 percent. “No need to take on additional FX risk,” he said. “I pay a higher rate, but at least I can see ahead.”