Facebook Explains Key Role of AI in Its Future Development

The social network shared AI and VR news that it hopes will signal the next wave of its own innovation, creating a new standard for an online social experience.

Day 2 of Facebook's F8 conference was artificial intelligence day on the waterfront at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, where about 3,000 developers and some interloping journalists were hanging out April 13 on a picturesque day.

Oh yes, there also were about 1 million others watching the proceedings via the Webcast, wishing they were at the conference.

The social network shared artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) news that it hopes will signal the next wave of its own innovation, creating a new standard for the online social experience that will include all types of e-commerce. Facebook's Applied Machine Learning team runs this Facebook functionality, and they've been doing a heck of a lot of work.

Here are some key data points from Day 2 of the conference.

Artificial Intelligence

Facebook demonstrated that its AI can do some useful things, such as provide descriptions of photos to sightless people, analyze a photo of someone’s mole to determine whether it could be cancerous, and organize a person's Facebook news feed.

Because F8 is a developers' conference, the company was forthcoming in offering under-the-hood demonstrations about how its AI is powering various Facebook experiences. Here are some use cases:

Translation: Today, 50 percent of the Facebook community does not speak English, and most people don't speak each other's languages. To remove these communication barriers, the team built an AI-based automatic translation system that helps a whopping 800 million people every month see translated posts in their news feed.

Photo Image Search: Using Facebook's automatic image classifiers, one can imagine a scenario where someone could have the ability to search through all the photos friends have shared to look for a particular one based on the image content, instead of relying on tags or surrounding text.

Talking Pictures: Facebook is currently doing research that breaks images open and understands them at the individual pixel level, rather than simply classifying the entire image. This is called image segmentation, and it allows the social network to recognize individual objects in the image as well as their relationship to one another. Using image segmentation, Facebook will be able to build more immersive experiences for the blind with so-called "talking images" that can be read with fingertips, in addition to offering more powerful ways to search images.

Real-Time Video Classification: To build the tools that would organize content people want to see, the team needed to be able to classify live videos on the fly in real time. In real time, computer vision techniques can open videos and classify what's in them without using tags or surrounding content.

Data privacy concerning all of this is a topic that will need to undergo much more discussion.

Social Virtual Reality

Facebook wants people to be able to interact with anyone else, no matter where they are in the world, through virtual reality. Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer showed onstage how he was able to join Michael Booth, a leader of the social VR team, in the same virtual space as the duo toured London together (see photo).

See eWEEK's April 12 story about Facebook's forays into VR.

Aquila, the Facebook Drone

Facebook's cloud-controlled drone made its debut at the 2015 F8 conference. However, the company's been working hard on improving it. The flying computer, which weighs less than a small car, is designed to fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet and stay airborne for several months at a time.

CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg mentioned it during his 10-year road map talk on April 12.

"If you had told me Facebook was going to build a plane, I would have told you [that] you were crazy," Zuckerberg said.

Live Video Streaming Open to All

Facebook has opened its API for live video, so that users can stream video from various objects. The company last week opened this functionality for users to broadcast live video to specially designated groups.

Facebook launched Live last summer to public figures via the Mentions app and more recently to everyone in the United States using its iOS and Android apps. The Live app enables users to stream live videos shot on iPhones and various Android phones directly into their own news feeds on their Facebook pages.

Now, anybody can do it. Zuckerberg demonstrated by showing live video being streamed to Facebook from a drone that flew around inside the Fort Mason Center building.

Facebook Account Kit

Facebook is even helping to rid IT of those infernal passwords we all tend to forget. Its new Account Kit gives users the choice of logging into new apps by using a phone number or an email address—numbers that already are burned into our brains. The new feature could help developers reach new audiences with their apps, Facebook said.

Facebook Connectivity Lab

Facebook wants everybody in the world to not have to worry about Internet connectivity—and, naturally, people need connectivity to use a social network. With its new Connectivity Lab, Facebook debuted two new ground-based systems for boosting Internet access around the globe.

The first one, Terragraph, is a wireless system that will be deployed only in urban areas in small nodes on indoor furniture, according to the company. It will debut in its first test market of San Jose, Calif., later this year, Zuckerberg said.

The second, called Aries, is a proof-of-concept antenna research project designed to cover vast areas with low population. No timetable for deploying Aries was announced.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...