Facebook sees its future built on artificial intelligence

A.I. will know you better, serve up information and help you manage your life

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SAN FRANCISCO --  According to one Facebook executive, if you think you're drowning in a flood of information now, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

In four years, there are expected to be about 40 zettabytes of information in the world, according to Mike Beltzner, a Facebook product manager.

Think of it this way: A zettabyte is more than 1 trillion gigabytes. If a gigabyte can store 960 minutes of music, then a zettabyte can store 2 billion years of music.

"If you take a look at the sweep of data over time, we are now producing more data every year than ever before," Beltzner told Computerworld in an interview at F8, Facebook's annual developer conference. "If you feel like you're already suffering from information overload, it's not going to get any better."

So how does Facebook, which handles all of the posts, comments, photos and videos posted by its 1.59 billion monthly users, plan to deal with this crush of information?

Artificial intelligence.

Beltzner said that the social networking giant already uses A.I. for such tasks as authenticating a user (and predicting if it's the actual user or a Russian spammer), loading a user's News Feed and choosing which out of the tens of thousands of potential stories available to offer up.

"We use A.I. predictives to know what you're interested in and what's in each post," Beltzner said. "More and more posts are image only. We need to understand what's in those images, so we use computer vision software and neural networks… We need help getting the information you need. We'll need A.I. even more for that."

At Tuesday's opening F8 keynote, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company shares the advances it makes in artificial intelligence in the hopes that it will spur the use of the technology in fields like space exploration and medicine.

"We want to make it easier for you all to take advantage of all the advances we're making in A.I.," Zuckerberg said. "When our A.I. systems get 10 times better, you can be 10 times better at diagnosing diseases. This way we can all make faster progress together."

According to Beltzner, the company has 50 people working on nothing but artificial intelligence. In February, Facebook announced that it was donating servers to research organizations across Europe to boost A.I. research.

In a keynote on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said that A.I. on Facebook makes 6 million predictions per second. More than 25% of the company's engineers have used A.I. to improve a system on the network.

Other than helping Facebook cull a flood of information in the future, what else could A.I. bring to Facebook in the next five or 10 years?

"I predict a world where notifications are always relevant," Beltzner said. "Today, a lot of people complain that their phone buzzes and they don't know if it's important enough to bother taking their phone out of their pocket. It will know the difference between a kid posting a picture of their pet compared to a friend you haven't seen in 10 years at a coffee shop down the road where you could meet him in 10 minutes."

He added that it won't be a matter of A.I., or even Facebook, collecting more information about users. Instead, the issue will be how to use the information better.

"The A.I. will know who you are and what's important to you," Beltzner said.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said as important as A.I. is to Facebook today, he's not surprised that it will become increasingly critical to run the social network.

"Given the great strides that A.I. is making, the Facebook of 2026 will probably be completely different than the Facebook of today," Olds said. "We'll probably have bots that handle just about every daily chore we have; bots that will plan our meals and order our groceries automatically, and just about anything else you can imagine. As the largest social network on the planet, Facebook will assumedly be a part of all of this, if not playing a prime role."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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