Mary Lou Jepsen on Life Post-Facebook and New Startup, “Open Water”

Xconomy San Francisco — 

I had long planned a phone call with Mary Lou Jepsen for this afternoon—a prep session for a chat I will be doing with her a week from Monday night at Xconomy’s Napa Summit, where she is the featured dinner speaker. It was to be a normal prep chat until I got to work this morning and learned that CNET, Engadget, and Tech Insider had all reported that the technology visionary was planning to leave her post as executive director of engineering for Facebook and Oculus, to focus on a new startup. It turned out she had talked about her plans last night during a keynote speech at the Women of Vision Awards banquet in Santa Clara, CA—and the media outlets had all seized on the news.

“I was actually really surprised anybody picked that up,” Jepsen told me (showing she doesn’t fully understand what a big deal she is). So I took advantage of the call to ask her more. Some of our talk was off the record, but much of it was on the record, including quite a bit about her new plans and the thinking behind them.

Her vision is broad and sweeping: it runs from a new generation of extremely high-resolution, affordable MRI machines for early detection of cancer, heart disease, and more, to a far-out time (or maybe not so far-out) when machines can read people’s minds and people can communicate—with each other and maybe even with animals—via thoughts.

The idea “leverages the tools of our times,” Jepsen says, citing advances in everything from physics to optoelectronics to consumer electronics to big data and A.I. that can be combined to shrink the size, improve the functionality, and lower the cost of MRI. “I could no longer wait. I’m still writing up the patents. But I am incredibly excited to strike off on this direction,” she says.

The startup, whose name has not previously been released as far as I can tell, is called Open Water (it could also be OpenWater, “not sure yet…either is OK for now,” she says). “Peter Gabriel gave me the name. He is a great advisor,” Jepsen says. In particular, she was inspired by this article he wrote for, called Open Water–The Internet of Visible Thought, in which he credited Jepsen for introducing him “to the potential of brain reading devices.”

Jepsen says she can’t talk about funding and more specific plans for Open Water yet, and that she will remain at Facebook until August. But here are some highlights of what she could say:

“What I try to do is make things that everybody knows are utterly, completely impossible—I try to make them possible,” Jepsen sums up. She does that by leveraging what she calls her “strange background” that encompasses physics, computer science, media technology, art, electrical engineering, and more. “That all comes together for me.” Indeed, you can find more in this companion piece on that background, which includes stints at Google X, One Laptop per Child (which she co-founded), the MIT Media Lab, Intel, her own startups, and more.

In the case of Open Water, part of her motivation is her own health. “I’m a brain tumor survivor,” she says. She had surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1995, and since then has taken pills “twice a day every day for the last 21 years to stay alive.” That has led her to read a lot on the side about neuroscience—and think about how to advance the field.

Part of the idea behind Open Water involves taking things at “the hairy edge of what physics can do,” Jepsen says, and then “using my substantial capability in consumer electronics” to make them possible at consumer electronics price points. She says there is a huge potential in the manufacturing plants in Asia that are primarily used to make OLEDs, LCDs, and such. Jepsen adds that these consumer electronics manufacturers have been mostly focused on smartphones for the past decade or so. But, she says, we’ve reached saturation in mobile phones, and sales are declining. “What I see,” she says, are “the subcomponent makers being really hungry for what the new, new thing is.”

“My big bet is we can use that manufacturing infrastructure to create the functionality of a $5 million MRI machine in a consumer electronics price-point wearable. And the implications of that are so big.” She says every doctor’s office in the world could afford these wearable devices and use them for early detection of neurodegenerative disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, internal bleeding, blood clots, and more.

“It’s such a big idea, it’s what I wanted to do for a decade. It’s why I went to MIT [Media Lab]. It’s why I went to Google,” she says. “It turned out that Google really needed me to do some other stuff that was way more important to Google at the time. I’ve been incubating this since 2005…and I clearly see how to do it and how to realize it in a few short years.”

One factor in advancing her idea was work published about five years ago by a group led by Jack Gallant at U.C. Berkeley, Jepsen says. The research group used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner to track blood flow and oxygen flow and image the brains of people shown hundreds of hours of videos. You can read more about it here, but the main point Jepsen stressed to me was that the work (and subsequent work) has produced a library or database of sorts of how brains react to different images. A computer using artificial intelligence can then use such a database to basically look at MRI brain images in real time and interpret what people are thinking about or reacting to. This ability has been demonstrated at dozens of labs to gauge the brain’s reactions to words, music, math equations, and more, she says. But the resolution is poor and the process is expensive, requiring people to lie still in big chambers inside a huge magnet.

“I was really struck by that, so I started thinking this is great, but we need to up the resolution,” she says. “It’s in my head, I’ve got this plan. I’ve got these inventions that I’m working on, and my next step is to let myself pursue it full time.”

It is easy to see the power of these ideas to help make MRI far more affordable and accessible. But for Jepsen, that is just Phase One. She talks about the ability to image human thoughts in new ways, for instance, by helping stroke sufferers who can’t talk find a new way to communicate via their thoughts. Or for amputees to harness their thoughts to move prosthetics more naturally.

And then she goes a step or two farther. “Can you imagine a movie director waking up with an image of a new scene in her head, and just being able to dump her dream” into a computer, she says. ”It could be so much more efficient than the way we do it now.” For musicians, she muses, this could be “a way to get the music out of your head.”

But that’s not all. “Maybe we can communicate with animals, maybe we can scan animal brains and see what images they are thinking of,” Jepsen says. “So little is known. Dolphins are supposed to be really smart—maybe we can collaborate with them.”

It all sounds pretty far-out, I know, and she says so, too. But given how long Jepsen has had these ideas in her head—and how much work has been done in brain-machine interfaces—perhaps the world is finally ready to receive her thoughts.

Mary Lou Jepsen