Tuesday 23 July 2019

So what does the Face of the future look like?

As the social networking site is currently valued at $50bn, John Costello wonders: What next for the Facebook generation?

It boasts more than 500 million users, is valued at $50bn and has Bono laughing all the way to the bank. So is Facebook set to conquer the world? Well, this week it made a very impressive leap towards that goal. The social networking site, which started out as a geek's hobby in a Harvard dorm in 2004, is now worth more than Time Warner thanks to a new round of investment that saw Goldman Sachs inject a cool $450m into the internet phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the website, which has stolen Google's crown as the king of the hi-tech, continues to grow at a breathtaking pace, adding 700,000 new users everyday.

Now founder Mark Zuckerberg, who last year became Time magazine's Man Of The Year and saw Hollywood release a hit film based on his life, stands to double his already impressive $6.9bn bankroll and become one of the richest people on the planet on the back of the new $50bn valuation of the company.

The valuation has also made Bono an even wealthier man after his investment firm's 1.5pc stake in Facebook rocketed in value to a tidy $750m, nearly four times its original investment.

"Facebook works because it allows the average Joe to basically gossip and chat in one space with everyone they know," says Andrew Lovatt, founder of internet consultancy firm Redmoonmedia. "It's the most successful brand in the world at the moment and it works because it fulfils an inherent need within everyone to feel connected."

More than one out of every two internet users have logged onto Facebook, to post messages, chat, share photos, play games, read news updates and keep tabs on friends and famous people.

Its reach has become so pervasive that police in the UK hunting the killer of landscape architect Joanna Yeates launched a national Facebook campaign to appeal for help because it would reach a much larger audience than traditional poster and leaflet appeals.

But while Facebook's growth seems almost unstoppable, the short history of the internet is littered with companies that rose like shooting stars and then vanished without a trace.

Even recent heavyweights MySpace and Bebo, which once dominated the social networking market, are now struggling after their audiences plummeted.

"I suspect Facebook is not the final shout," says Lovatt. "While it is being valued at $50bn, there is always going to be a discussion as to what's next."

But while competitors, such as Diaspora and OneSocialWeb offer alternatives, Zuckerman, the 26-year-old Harvard dropout, intends to ring-fence Facebook's dominance by making it a vital element in all our daily lives.

He says Facebook is "almost guaranteed" to reach the one billion user mark and has plans for the site to move beyond being a simple network of social connections to become the ultimate navigation tool.

He believes Facebook can become the 'second internet' and act as a one-stop source for people to manage their social lives, stay informed about current events, and find deals on everything from travel to clothing.

Its dominance could see email in the future being usurped by Facebook messages and chat. Television will also provide a new access point with the next generation of internet-connected TVs, such as Samsung's Smart TV, allowing viewers to message friends about the shows they are watching.

But the trend Facebook is looking to capitalise on is the gradual move away from computers to mobile devices and the development of Artificial Intelligence.

"Mobile-driven applications will be the way people will interact," says Billy Mahon, CEO of Superior Internet Marketing.

"So in the future it won't be about PCs or laptops. More people have smart phones even now than laptops, so it seems obvious that this will be the future of social media."

While new media guru Dr Mohanbir Sawhney says he can't even begin to visualise what a mobile device will look like in 2015, he is sure of one thing: "You will have your lifestyle at your fingertips."

This will help customise the information you receive, inform the decisions you make and even influence the products you buy.

"For instance, I will be able to download all of my preferences, my personality and details of my likes and dislikes," says Sawhney.

"Then I may provide this information to a 'shopping bot' (robot or automated application) that I will then delegate the task of negotiating and transacting on my behalf. You will see the evolution of "D2D" commerce (Device-to-Device) without human intervention."

Other heavyweights agree that this type of Artificial Intelligence could be the future of social networking and help transform the likes of Facebook over the next decade or so.

"I think that in 10 years, if you ask a question on a social network and you get an answer, you will not know if a computer or a person has answered you," says Yury Milner, chief executive of DST Global, the Russian firm that invested $50 million in Facebook alongside Goldman Sachs.

"On the other hand, when you receive a question, you will not know if it has been asked by a person or an artificial intelligence."

Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, are being used as a platform on which to test AI due to their vast wealth of conversational data. The volume of information generated by Facebook alone is daunting with 10.2 million comments and 2.7m photos uploaded every 20 minutes.

"There was as much information generated in the last two days as there was in the history of civilisation up to 2003," noted Milner earlier this week. So AI applications and devices could become key as the stream of information we encounter on a daily basis continues to expand.

There is already an application available on Facebook called Ultra Hal (inspired by the computer in 2001) that is an artificially intelligent chat interface. It allows Facebook users chat to it and it actively learns to improve its intelligence during the discussions.

The firm behind the Ultra Hal software Zabaware sells a commercial version that is clever enough to be "used as a companion or entertainment product" and "can discuss any topic" or "be used as a personal assistant."

In November Spanish Scientists helped AI take another leap forward by creating a computer programme that can recognise emotions in a human voice.

Thus in the future human contact may not be actually necessary to fulfil many of our social needs.

But in a world dominated by artificial intelligence, just let's hope the prediction of the 1968 science fiction movie Barbarella, where the future human race makes love by consuming Exaltation Transference Pills without the need for intimate contact, does not come to pass.

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