International Business Festival 2018




Ian Hughes
15 May 2017

Noticed a steady decline in gifted woolly-knitted jumpers over the years? That's because knitting doesn't get much of a look-in when you're Facebooking live, cyber-spying on ‘friends' and sharing daily snaps with your nearest and dearest (plus 300 other people, who you met once).

When even your Nan is prolific on Facebook, you know that the platform has more than arrived. It's scary how quickly this relatively new way of sharing our thoughts, feelings, photos and videos has seeped into and seemingly taken over our lives.

Facebook has come of age in a short space of time and this accelerated progression has got us thinking. What's next for the world's best loved social network? Exciting things are on the horizon and staying in touch and sharing your thoughts could be a whole lot different by 2027. Here's a taste of Facebook's audacious plans to shape the future of social media.




No keyboard, no mouse, simply use your brain

Think happy, happy thoughts – or else. Facebook has nearly 2 billion active users. One of the few places the platform hasn't occupied itself yet is inside your brain; a sacred place for your innermost thoughts. Well, enjoy it while it lasts, because things could soon change.

The planet's most active social media platform currently has more than 60 engineers working on interface technology that will enable computers to be controlled directly by the human brain.

Facebook made the announcement on Wednesday 19th April, at the F8 developer conference Gizmodo, in San Jose, California. F8 Head of Research and Development, Regina Dugan explained how ‘optical imaging' coupled with ‘filtering for quasi-ballistic photons' would act as a great starting point to mind reading technology.

Whilst it's easy to make mind-reading computers sound disturbingly invasive, the technology has incredible potential to help the world communicate faster and more effectively. People could potentially type without a keyboard and click buttons without a mouse. Dugan told the crowd that her team was hoping to advance the technology to a point where users could type up to 100 words a minute using their mind alone, explaining:

That's five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it's straight from your brain and brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it's spelt; it also contains semantic information of what those words mean.

Such an interface could also allow deaf and blind people to communicate with greater ease. But, there is a darker side. Whilst the human brain can stream the equivalent of 40 high-definition films at any one moment, its process is unfiltered and, let's face it, not always for public consumption.

Any brain-to-text system would essentially read a person's thoughts and Facebook is well-aware of the potential to invade users' privacy and share too much. That's why they've created an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel, to oversee their mind-reading tech. With the proper ethical checks and restrictions, we think it sounds like a great idea. (You'll just have to take us at our word on this, for now.)




Smarter, better, faster - Facebook has big things planned for AI 


Facebook has dabbled in artificial intelligence since 2010, when the company introduced facial-recognition technology, to quickly identify people in photos.  Despite being labelled “one of the hardest engineering challenges of our time” by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the technology remains central to the company's future.

In 2013, Zuckerberg established a lab devoted to AI, led by world-class computer scientist and deep-learning expert Professor Yann LeCun, and his overarching goal is typically godlike:

One of our goals for the next five to ten years is to get better than human level at all of the primary human senses: vision, hearing, language, general cognition. Taste and smell we're not that worried about, for now.

Or, to put it another way, Facebook is looking to make all its social networks (which also include Instagram and WhatsApp) smarter than us mere mortals and the benefit is clear. Whilst the company is amazing at collecting vast amounts of data, it's not quite so good when it comes to understanding what it all means and how it can use it to its advantage.

This is where Advanced AI comes in. The technology could help hone in on and push forward the things that are really useful or interesting to Facebook users, keeping people on the site for longer and boosting the platform's attractiveness to advertisers, but it doesn't end there.

Think of a world where everything from self-driving cars to smartwatches and VR headsets talk to each other, sharing information to run more effectively and conserve resources. Then consider all the data and servers this would create. That's a lot of information to deal with and the conventional models and systems we have today won't scale to meet these requirements. Facebook's Vice President of Engineering, Mike Schroepfer, explained the issue:

If there's 10x or 20x or 50x more things happening around the world, then you're going to need these really, really intelligent systems, just like the systems Professor Yann and his team are building.

Such high-concept, future thinking can be hard to get your head around but Facebook already uses AI to personalise feeds and translate posts. They've even developed technology that can instantly recognise dog breeds in digital media.

But Professor Yann's work isn't all in the pipeline. He's already helped Facebook to develop smarter spam protection and advert-compliance systems that easily outperform human counterparts and his AI technology has been used in apps such as Moments, which quickly scours your smartphone's camera roll for photos of friends and then shares them with these people.

Facebook's chief product officer, Chris Cox sees the logic in the company's AI investment, stating:

I think it makes sense that computers start to get closer and closer to the way we experience the real world, with our fingers, mouth and without a keyboard.

In a super-fast, data-rich and information-overloaded world, smarter, better, faster just makes sense.




Imagine Skyping in this scene?


Facebook bought Oculus VR in March 2014 for a cool $2bn. Since then the Oculus team have worked on perfecting their Rift glasses and creating Facebook's 360-degree video feature, which debuted last September. They're currently gearing up to start shipping their Rift 2 headsets, which are rumoured to come complete with a PC and Xbox One gamepad for a cost of around $1,500.

But Zuckerberg has much bigger things in mind for Oculus than merely playing games. He's betting that VR will be the next major computing platform, usurping phones in the same way phones usurped desktop. He's also betting that human nature won't change that much by the time it does, stating:

If you look at how people spend time on all computing platforms, whether it's phones or desktops, before that, about 40% is spent on some kind of communications and media.  Over the long term, when Oculus becomes a more mature platform, I would bet that it's going to be the same 40% of the time doing social interactions and things like that. And that's what we know. That's what we can do.

The potential for AR and VR to revolutionise social media is immense and the thinking behind this upgrade is simple. If nothing beats real human interaction, how can Facebook socialising be more like real-life?

Take Skype for example. You like Skype, it's great, but the people are flat, two-dimensional, squashed into a screen and stuck in the one place. Now imagine Skype in 3D, with a setting of your choice. Picture yourself chatting to your partner whilst reclining in a Renoir-inspired gondola on Venice's Grand Canal or playing chess with your mate in New York's Central Park. Viewed in this context, Skype suddenly seems sort of mundane and ready for a revolutionary VR overhaul.

But why stop there? Facebook is also developing algorithms that can understand the slightest nuances of people's physical interactions. The company has created a camera-lined dome, called the Panoptic Studio, to record the movements of people placed inside from all angles.

These images capture and categorise the thousands of gestures and expressions that people use to communicate and interact. These slight movements have been referred to as “an elaborate secret code, that is written nowhere, known by none and understood by all” by linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir. Cracking this code could enable Facebook to read people's intentions and emotions, conscious or otherwise, and share or sell this data.

There's still a long way to go before we can manifest our digital doppelganger in our mate's living room or subversively read subtle body language to get two-steps ahead, but the technology is there and Facebook is confident that its ultimate goals in this area will soon be within reach.




Solar-powered drone could bring Facebook to remote places


On the face of it, Facebook's mission is a simple one: ‘To give everyone the power to share and make the world more open and connected'. The company's drone ambitions tap directly into this.

Giving ‘everyone' the ability to use Facebook means connecting with the 4 billion-plus people who don't have access to the internet, even if it means flying a drone over a remote village and beaming data down via a laser. As incredible as it sounds, this idea is something that Facebook has in the works.

Facebook's ‘tethered drone' was initially developed to get people back online during disaster relief, as its tether enables the drone to deliver the function of a signal tower and stay in the air, without needing to come down for days, even weeks at a time.

With a wingspan of 14 feet and about the same weight and mass as a car tyre, Facebook's tethered drone has the power to be deployed quickly and beam record levels of data up to seven kilometres away. Solar power is also being aggressively developed as an alternative power source and Facebook believes the same technology could help the company reach people in even the most remote places in the world.

Internet connectivity is already being talked about as a human right and yes, in times of disaster it can save people's lives. But the internet is much more than that. It's simply how people live now.

Simple things like booking a doctor's appointment, working from home or sorting your taxes suddenly become much more difficult if you're not online, making life a lot harder. This drone/beaming technology could prove to be a effective way to ensure no communities are left unconnected and, in turn, left behind.




Facebook has an unprecedented global audience. Between July and September last year, the company made $7bn (£5.7bn) in revenue - a 59 percent increase on the year before.

The company could easily sit back and let the money roll in, but instead, it's looking ahead and developing ideas and new technology to make life richer, easier and more rewarding. But, of course, these ambitions are not entirely altruistic. Facebook's inventiveness will enable them to constantly explore and develop potential new funding streams, to future-proof their business and stay ahead of the competitors.

Digital worlds, disaster relief drones, dynamic droids and brain-reading devices. It's enough to make your head spin. I'm 40 years younger than my Nan but it's hard to keep up with new technology now and it's bewildering to think what things will be like when I'll be collecting my pension and hammering that free bus pass.

Facebook is working hard to stay in front and its status is constantly moving forward, changing the way we live, communicate and share our lives. Chances are, the biggest changes we see in social media over the next decade will be showcased on Facebook first and the company's future success seems assured.

Facebook is 13 years old now but it's ageing well and it can do things no other company can.

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