Friday, 6 May 2016

Facebook In The Future

Facebook In The Future

Mark Zuckerberg has big plans for his company – and big predictions about the future. Sarah Dobbs checks out what’s in store for Facebook (and us)

When you’re running a company as enormous as Facebook, it might be easy to rest on your laurels. Facebook is so ubiquitous that it’s become easier to use it than not to use it, whether you’re a grandparent wanting to see what your grandkids are up to, an up-and-coming musician wanting to promote your work, or, you know, just a person who likes to keep in touch with their friends. So it’d be hard to blame Mark Zuckerberg and co if they just sat back and let things carry on as they are. However, as Zuck’s presentation at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference proved, that’s not the plan.

Actually, Facebook has got a pretty detailed and ambitious ten-year vision for what comes next. 2026 might sound like a date from a science fiction movie, but Facebook’s head honcho has grand plans for what he’ll be doing by then, and it includes all kinds of equally sci-fi sounding technologies, which Facebook will adapt to, profit from – or maybe even develop. Ready to peer into Zuckerberg’s crystal ball and see what the future has in store? Yes? Let’s go…

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality, as an idea, is hardly new, but when Zuckerberg talks about the potential for using virtual reality in the future, he’s not thinking about the clunky headsets of the 90s, or even nowadays... Facebook acquired Oculus Rift in early 2014 – at the not inconsiderable cost of $2bn – and Zuckerberg has also appeared at events to talk up Samsung’s Gear headset, so it’s pretty clear that Facebook reckons there’s a much sleeker, powerful and desirable version of virtual reality tech in our near future.

The virtual reality Zuckerberg envisions is one that lets people share their experiences with one another in a totally immersive way. So instead of typing a Facebook update to tell your friends about your amazing holiday, or even posting a few pictures, you could make a 360° video and post it to your profile, ready for your friends to view with their VR goggles – which, according to Zuckerberg, will be soon as light and easy to wear as normal glasses. All sorts of milestones and experiences could be recorded and shared, both personal and, inevitably, corporate too. Imagine VR concerts, or sporting events, all available exclusively through Facebook.

That might well be the future we’re heading towards. The slide Zuckerberg used to illustrate Facebook’s 10 year plan at F8 also explained how he sees all these new and exciting technologies working with Facebook: essentially, Facebook will be the ecosystem in which these various technologies exist, the platform on which developers create and display their products.

It makes sense, as Facebook already has the user numbers to support all kinds of new things. There is a hint of dystopia about it too, however, especially when you think about the various products and services Facebook has already snapped up: WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus Rift central among them. Will the future see other innovative and popular properties similarly snapped up? Well, this is the Facebook version of the future, so for now, let’s assume the answer is ‘yes’ and ignore any misgivings that might stir up.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence might seem like another hangover from the 90s, but Facebook is banking on it finally stepping out of its sci-fi shadow and becoming mainstream. One way we’ll see artificial intelligence pop up on Facebook is in the form of chatbots, but the kind you may have tried to converse with back in the bad old days of AOL Instant Messenger. Nope, Facebook’s plan for chatbots is for them to finally become useful enough that they can serve as a first point of contact between consumers and the brands that will drive it’s profits.

To that end, the firm is building a chatbot platform for its Messenger client. The plan is that, rather than companies having to employ social media managers to sit and chat to consumers with questions or complaints all day, they’ll build bots that can figure out a customer’s issue and offer solutions – or even offer promotional discounts.

Though it sounds pretty straightforward, in reality there are likely to be plenty of bugs to work out. Just ask Microsoft, whose bot was rapidly hacked by Twitter trolls and taught to spew Nazi propaganda. Any algorithm for responses built into Facebook bots would need to be robust enough to withstand that kind of gaming of the system – or maybe just have such a limited repertoire and capacity for learning that it’d never pick up bad habits, even though that’d also limit its usefulness in dealing with genuine customer queries. Still, Facebook reckons the chatbot revolution is imminent, so keep an eye out for bots in your inbox in the near future.

Artificial intelligence will also help Facebook to maintain its platform and serve up relevant promotional content to users. Facebook already has AI in place for authenticating users and weeding out spammers, and its Top Stories algorithms are sorted by ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence that’s trying to learn exactly what you want to see. That’s not as simple as it sounds either, since so many posts on Facebook involve images or videos, so Facebook is working on teaching its AI to interpret this kind of content.

You might have already noticed that when you upload pictures, Facebook’s software can pick out faces and suggest which of your friends you might have snapped photos of. That kind of thing is only going to get more prevalent as time goes on.

Again, there’s something ever so slightly creepy about the idea of super intelligent computers programmed to recognise us and understand what we do and don’t like. This is the world we’ve built for ourselves, though.

Drones And Lasers

Okay, now it sounds like Zuckerberg has designs on becoming an actual Bond villain, but the reality of Facebook’s vision for using these scary-sounding technologies couldn’t be friendlier. In short, the plan is to provide internet connectivity to places that don’t currently have the infrastructure in place to get online.

Facebook has been working towards a more connected world for years now; back in 2013, it launched, a nonprofit aimed at connecting up the estimated four billion people who don’t currently have internet connections. The company’s Connectivity Lab has come up with a few innovative ways of providing that connection, among them projects dubbed Aquila, Terragraph and ARIES.

Aquila is probably the most audacious of the lot. Facebook reckons it’s figured out a way to deliver data via lasers beamed from solar-powered drones. It’s even built and tested a prototype aircraft, which can deliver reliable internet connections. It’s a pretty imaginative way of getting round the lack of cabling and infrastructure in some parts of the world, though it’s got its own challenges as well – like keeping the drones flying out of the way of other aircraft, and keeping them powered and running in adverse weather conditions. If it works, though, it’d be far cheaper and quicker than setting up traditional connections in remote regions of the world.

Speaking of conventional infrastructure, the cabling that most of the world already uses is also struggling to keep up with ever increasing volumes of data transmission, but Facebook is also working on a solution for that, in the form of Terragraph. That’s its name for its in-development wireless internet system that would see nodes installed throughout cities, delivering high-speed connections to urbanites.

Then there’s ARIES (Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum), which is Facebook’s experimental method for improving radio towers, in order to increase the speed and capacity of mobile networks in remote areas.

Each of these projects is part of Facebook’s grand vision for a faster, better and more widespread internet in the future. The company isn’t quite ambitious enough to want to run the whole show, though. No, the plan is to invest in getting these technologies up and running, so that other operators can take over. Facebook would just benefit from introducing potentially billions more people to the internet and also helping to up connections for the people who are already connected. Altruistic, or a cunning plan to gain billions more eyeballs for its advertising? Depends how cynical you’re feeling.

Telepathy And Constant Communication

Everything covered so far sounds realistic, if ambitious. Chatbots are already a thing we mostly understand; virtual reality seems like it might finally take off; and drones, well, they’re not quite as menacing or impractical as they might once have seemed. So to finish off, let’s look at something Mark Zuckerberg has predicted for the future of communication that does seem rather unlikely.

Last year, in an online Q&A session, Zuckerberg mused that eventually people will be able to share their thoughts directly, without having to type them in or go through any interface. Nope, apparently you’ll just be able to think something and all your friends will be able to pick up on it, or experience what you’re experiencing.

He also reckons we’ll all be communicating with one another even more regularly than we already are – constantly, in fact. Looking at the way communication has already evolved, especially over long distances, that might make a sort of sense. You used to have to write a letter, then you could make a phone call, or send an email, or post a Facebook update; each new development makes things faster, and the faster the communication method, the more frequently we tend to use it, sharing things we might never have bothered to communicate in the past.

Will we all want to share our every thought, all day every day, though? That sounds like it might maybe be a leap too far. After all, most of us already have some privacy-related concerns about the idea of sharing all our data with one or two big companies. Imagine letting a corporation in on your actual thoughts? That really is terrifyingly dystopian, with hardly any way to rationalise that paranoia away.

Will We Still Like Facebook In The Future?

The big question mark that hangs over all of these amazing predictions of the future, of course, is – will Facebook still be around in ten years? After all, even the biggest brands can sometimes fail. Ten years is a long time, during which a lot of things can change.

The good news for Zuck and Co. is that all the signs look pretty good for Facebook’s continued existence. Recent figures about social network usage show that Facebook is still top of the pile, with a massive 44% market share – Twitter, for the sake of comparison, was at just 5%. In terms of actual user numbers, Facebook has around 1.5 billion monthly users, which sounds pretty healthy.

Its bank manager is presumably pretty happy too, as Facebook’s reported profits from the fourth quarter of 2015 stood at $1.56bn. (that’s £1.09bn) over just three months. No wonder the company feels it can afford to invest in developing new ideas.

If we could make one prediction to add to Zuckerberg’s stock, though, it’d be this: something massively disruptive will happen between now and 2026. A decade in technology is a really, really long time, and no matter how well prepared anyone thinks they are, something always comes along to surprise them. Ten year plans are all well and good, but you’ve always got to leave space for the unexpected…