A Visit to Facebook’s London Office
November 16, 2016
Last Tuesday (Nov 8th, 2016), Facebook held at its London office a talk titled `Hacking the Future’, presented by Mark Schroepfer, its CTO. During the talk, Mark laid out Facebook’s vision for the next 10 years, expressing the fact that Facebook wants to become a major contributor on the R&D research front. They are going to focus on research in three areas: connectivity, AI, and virtual and augmented reality. In the connectivity field, they basically want to provide better and more internet connections for people, to be able to get people who live in rural areas connected without having to destroy the environment too much — thus satisfying their general motto of `bringing people together’. Some ideas were laid out, e.g. having drones cycling and covering an area, instead of raising metal poles. On the V&AR front, they are working on having avatars, so people could have their loved ones at their site when, for example, Skyping with them. They also want to work on helping disabled people get mobility with the use of avatar limbs. These ideas were all very exciting. But the winner topic for me was AI, where basically Facebook seems to have an advanced group called FAIR (Facebook AI Research) in its Paris, Menlo Park and New York offices, and the impression I got from the talk was that they mainly work on natural language processing and vision! For their publications see here: https://research.facebook.com/publications/.
Recent research done by FAIRers has applied convolutional neural nets to language problems such as question answering, for example to find an answer to the following:
1 Mary moved to the bathroom.
2 John went to the hallway.
3 Where is Mary? bathroom 1
or the following more elaborate one:
4 Daniel went back to the hallway.
5 Sandra moved to the garden.
6 Where is Daniel? hallway 4
7 John moved to the office.
8 Sandra journeyed to the bathroom.
9 Where is Daniel? hallway 4
10 Mary moved to the hallway.
11 Daniel travelled to the office.
12 Where is Daniel? office 11
You can read more about this project here: https://research.facebook.com/research/babi/
There is loads more, e.g. on developing dialogue systems for services, such as ones similar to this one:
1 hi hello what can i help you with today
2 can you make a restaurant reservation with italian cuisine for six people in a cheap price range i’m on it
3 <SILENCE> where should it be
4 rome please ok let me look into some options for you
5 <SILENCE> api_call italian rome six cheap
They have tasks on dialogues in movies and on language usage in children’s books. They have also done a lot on image captioning.
Finally, to my delight, apart from the CTO, one of the programmers gave a quick talk, to encourage students to apply to Facebook for internships. The programmer said that he had gone to Oxford and that among the courses he had taken there was a course I know quite well: Categories, Proofs, Processes, taught by Samson Abramsky. This is a highly theoretical course about the Curry-Howard Isomorphism between Cartesian Closed Categories, Intuitionistic Logic and Lambda Calculus (and btw Samson and Nikos from the theory group in EECS are going to teach it in ESSLLI 2017!!!). The programmer (whose name I have sadly forgotten) said that he does not use much of that course in his day to day work, but I think he was joking!
On the subject of internships, they were really encouraging students to apply. The winning points seemed to be academic excellence, as well as coding experience such as having gone to Hackathons and events like this talk etc. Invitations were sent beforehand to students to register to attend this meeting (albeit due to demand, it was a lottery). A special request was sent to make sure they had QMUL students present and there was a nice crowd of our students there. I recognised a face from my Maths in EE first year module, but our own Gijs did not win a ticket! A few professors were invited for a quite nice reception and all FB was interested in was that we let them know what our students were interested in. So I think there is a quiet nice opportunity, if one is interested in such things.
BTW, I am not sure if Tuesday’s talk was filmed, but a different less technical take on it by Zuckerberg (which might seem a bit out of date since it has some US election campaigning themes in it) is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxWWyhOvEew. This does not have as much about the NLP and vision theme. But apparently at the end of that meeting everyone was given a pair of VR glasses and a Samsung phone to power it!!!!