Web Summit: Facebook’s getting smarter at recognition

CTO Mike Schroepfer showcases an ever-smarter streamlined network

Sick of the selfies and the "inspirational" quotes? In the future, your Facebook newsfeed could become a more streamlined place as the social network implements its artificial intelligence project that helps filter through photos.

The company is working on a system that will identify the subject of a photograph,whether it’s a mobile phone, a dog or a fire engine.

Currently users are faced with a couple of options for keeping their newsfeeds interesting: they can unfollow the persistent offenders, or they can block pages that images and content are being shared from. In the future, Facebook may be able to look at the content being posted and, based on your interests and preferences, include it or filter it out of your newsfeed. That means fewer Minions memes, or more sports pictures, with little effort on the user’s part.

Chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer demonstrated the system at Facebook's booth, showing how it could not only identify vastly different objects - a toy elephant can be distinguished from a keyboard, for example - but also slightly more complex issues, such as identifying different dog breeds.


The system is still in its infancy, so it doesn’t always get things 100 per cent correct, but it’s being refined. It might identify an iPhone, but a similar size and shape phone could also be identified as such.

Schroepfer said it was all part of helping people to manage the increasing amount of information that was being generated online.

“There’s too much information out there,” he said. “We’re trying to help make sure people get the information they want and spend the time on the things that they need.”

AI isn’t just about identifying photographs though; Schroepfer drew attention to the translate feature on Facebook that will allow users to understand posts in foreign languages, or describe images for people who arev visually impaired.

“That’s an amazing enabling technology,” he said.

The technology is one of the three pillars of Facebook’s 10-year technical plan. The social network is also exploring how to connect those who do not currently have internet access, using solar powered drones that will fly for up to three months at a time. The Aquila drone is lightweight and uses laser technology to beam information between a network of the drones.

Virtual reality makes up the third pillar of facebook's plan, with its Oculus division forming a large part of its plans for immersive content in future. The company is set to launch its consumer product, Oculus Rift, early next year.

“This is the ultimate technology for human connection because you can have this experience with someone else where you’re in a virtual space, you see your hands, you can point, hand each other things,” said Schroepfer. “You have this immersive experience with someone whether they happen to be next to you or hundreds of miles away.”

Facebook has previously fallen foul of data privacy watchdpgs with its facial recognition system that it implemented on photos posted to the website. However, Schroepfer said the company has a simple goal for the technology.

“We always start with how is this technology going to help people, and is it going to make the product and the experience better,” he said.

“It’s ultimately up to you as consumers whether you want to use this or not. I think that’s going to be the ultimate driver for all this technology. If people like it and it makes their lives better, it will be great and people will want it. If it’s intrusive or not helpful, people won’t want want it.”

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist