Facebook Uses AI to Map Population Density

Facebook has been using artificial intelligence to sharpen its focus on the roughly 10 percent of the world that has been overlooked by the Internet revolution, the company announced Sunday at the Mobile World Congress.

The work has been led by the Connectivity Lab, Facebook’s research and development wing, which is tasked with making the breakthroughs needed to connect the world to the Internet. The research was done in collaboration with the Core Data Science, FAIR and Applied Machine Learning teams.

Coding Cartography

Before building the backbone necessary to support Internet delivery in the most remote areas of the world, Facebook set its AI loose on 350 TB of satellite imagery. Its neural network analyzed about 13.4 million square miles of terrain in search of the telltale signs of settlements.

The group started by discarding imagery that appeared to consist of little more than deserts, water and forests. About 99 percent of the landmasses it scanned were devoid of human habitation, according to the Connectivity Lab.

After discarding the satellite imagery of clearly uninhabited areas, the researchers tweaked their neural network to look for signs of settlements.

population density in Naivasha, Kenya

Facebook’s DigitalGlobe satellite image of Naivasha, Kenya (left) and the results of the population density analysis of the same area (right).

The effort comes down to maximizing the productivity of Facebook’s drone-based wireless service, said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT.

“The Earth is a huge place, and blanketing the entire planet with wireless would be enormously expensive and unproductive,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Instead, Facebook has used AI to identify the location of human settlements, thus significantly improving the overall efficiency of its wireless provisioning efforts.”

That effort will speed up deployment of Internet services to areas that need it, while saving Facebook money and other resources.

“There’s no sense blanketing a region with wireless if no one lives there,” said King.

Access for All

Facebook will make its data public later this year, but it shared one finding about how far the world has progressed: In 2015, the number of people using the Internet grew from 2.9 billion to 3.2 billion, according to a report titled “State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access.”

While Internet availability has hit the 90 percent mark globally, about 4.1 billion people weren’t using it in 2015, Facebook said.

The company has taken heat, especially inIndia, for attempting to deliver its brand of free Internet services to those without access. Still, the extension of the Internet to all populations is sure to have a positive impact on world peace, said Susan Eustis, senior researcherWinterGreen Research.

“Enterprise globalization has brought common patterns of commerce to every country where marketing is conducted,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Even the extension to Facebook will likely be a good thing, according to Eustis.

“Facebook messaging provides free texting that people love,” she said. “Facebook will begin to support e-commerce through its free messaging, further stimulating small business in communities worldwide.”

Development and deployment aren’t the only issues standing in the way of Facebook’s vision of a fully connected world. Roughly 1 billion people in the world are illiterate, and it could be hard to engage them with a platform that’s largely reliant on text, according to Pund-IT’s King.

“Nearly half the world’s 6 billion people live on $2.50 or less per day. How will they connect to a universally available Internet?” he noted. “Around 1.8 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water — many would say that’s a greater concern than Internet access.”

Quinten Plummer is a longtime technology reporter and an avid PC gamer who explored local news for a few years, covering law enforcement and government beats, before returning to writing about things run by ones and zeros and the people who make them. If it pushes pixels or improves lives, he wants to learn all he can about it.

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