Thoughts on CTRL-Labs
While sitting at dinner with an unsuspecting friend, my phone blew up with oddly-late messages from fellow neurotechnology comrades. CTRL-Labs announced their impending acquisition by Facebook and integration into Facebook Reality Labs (responsible for Oculus et al.), for enough money to buy my guilt-inducingly-expensive New York coffee for a meager 550,000 years. Woah—so very many questions. I figured I’d share (and consider this an open invitation to reach out and throw in your 100 billion cents-worth).
As a quick note before proceeding, aside from its pragmatic communication implications, I don’t much mind whether or not CTRL-Labs and other EMG technologies hold philosophical credence as true neurotechnologies; what matters is that they’re branded as such. It’s a debate that’s been waged elsewhere, so I’ll leave it be!
Q: What does this mean for the neurotechnology field?
- Consumer neurotechnology has been properly legitimized: there will now be an entry in the technology vernacular for “that neuro company FB bought.” Neurotech will be a true category, and will probably begin to appear on the websites of the more daring venture capital firms. This is non-trivial: when Facebook purchased Oculus in March of 2014, what followed was a huge influx of investments into AR/VR (the successes of which have admittedly been questionable at best). As many VCs are quick to note, VC is a social dance, and billion-dollar surprise exits to a FAANG company is a powerful way to get that game started.
- I’ve spoken to several entrepreneurs in consumer neurotechnology today and, as expected, all of them are excited. This is a win they can point to; a vision they can show might lead to a concrete outcome. It is and will remain motivating for entrepreneurs, their employees, and their present and future investors.
- Even though I don’t personally mind it, this acquisition is going to cause a hassle in nomenclature. To actually understand how CTRL-Labs differs from a central nervous system-BCI requires a bit of basic anatomy/physiology knowledge. For people not in the know (i.e., almost everybody, including most VCs and engineers), this adds an additional layer of complexity/misdirection to how people will think about neuro. Absent detailed information, humans employ underspecified models of semantic domains; that’s what will probably happen in consumer neurotechnology. In the same way, due to my ignorance of quantum computing, any piece of information I learn about quantum computing will apply to the entire field of quantum computing, whereas in reality, it’s just another piece in a complex puzzle. I suspect the same will happen in neuro.
- Control (as opposed to affective computing and the like) is going to be the flagship of neurotechnology, because that’s what CTRL-Labs does. It’s possible that investors, journalists, and technologists will, on average, fall prey to the same underspecified model trap and collapse all “use-cases” into control. (If you want to get a sense for how I create a taxonomy for consumer neurotech, you can skim this).
I’m willing to wager that more of the medical neurotechnology companies I know and will get to know over the coming months are going to emphasize the consumer-crossover angle. “We’re a medical device company now, but we’ll have a patient-facing app which would fit in nicely with the health data focus at [insert your company of choice].” It’s a reasonable notion, and it’s very reasonable for entrepreneurs and investors to be enticed by the idea; who doesn’t like the sound of a $1B pre-revenue acquisition?
- Well, for one, there’s been a large neurotechnology exit now. That’s enticing.
- This is almost certainly going to put neuro onto the radars of generalist VCs and/or specialist VCs who just haven’t specialized in neurotech yet but have plenty of adjacent knowledge in consumer electronics, technically innovative hardware, medical devices, AI of various sorts, etc. This is a good thing, but neurotech founders should think carefully about how to approach the education of non-neuro (read: most) investors. Have primer materials prepared, have current investors on hand willing to help in the educational process, and practice explaining neurotechnology to people in a way that’s impartial and only as informative as your audience wants.
Q: What does this acquisition get Facebook?
- A bunch of talent. A bunch.
- I don’t think this acquisition was about neuro; this acquisition was about winning AR/VR. As someone who previously worked on a fairly intricate VR interface, I’d argue the modern missing piece in AR/VR is the ability to have degrees of freedom of control commensurate to what we have over our laptops—i.e., the same DoF of our hands. That’s what Facebook got with this acquisition: the eradication of the barrier between VR and full-depth, intricate applications. To quote a close friend who works in AR/VR, in reference to this acquisition, “It’s an arms race out here” and Facebook just found its new arms in the arms (get it? EMG?).
Q: What are the characteristics of EMG use-cases? Pros/cons? Does it obviate the need for head-worn BCIs?
- In principle, EMG will eventually give your computer access to anything it wants to know about your hands. If we’re constraining ourselves to the physical control mechanisms we’ve evolved to use, then hand kinematics reconstruction is as good as it gets.
- EEG (or other noninvasive modalities), on the other hand, enable interactions we haven’t evolved; whereas as hominids we’ve always used our hands to manipulate things, we have not literally used our brains. The question is whether noninvasive sensing of control signals that don’t cooccur with actual or intended physical motion ultimately leads to as many degrees of freedom as hand manipulation, and what sorts of manipulations are better-suited to abstract control (brain) vs. evolved control (hands/arms).
- EEG is better for motor impairment use-cases because it doesn’t rely on neural signals propagating down the spinal cord.
- We still need central nervous system neurotechnologies to handle cognition and emotion. To appreciate the significance of this, consider the trend (with all its complex positives and negatives) toward understanding the mental states of users in finer-grained detail so that we can adapt technology, and even physical environments, to these states. There are a big class of problems that implicate cognition and emotion, and EMG won’t help us there.
- So, no, CTRL-Labs does not obviate head-worn BCIs!
These are my initial thoughts. They’ll change and become more detailed over time. Meanwhile, please do reach out and let me know your latest and great perspective – you can find me at “avery at loupventures dot com.”