Facebook And MIT Researchers Want To Use AI To Create Addresses For The Billions Of People Who Don't Have One

Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty

Facebook seems interested in moving into Google's territory of, well, territory. The social media company teamed up with the MIT Media Lab to propose a new system for developing addresses using machine learning.

The paper, released as a pre-print earlier this month by researchers Ilke Demir at Facebook and Ramesh Raskar of MIT, states that more than half of the roads on the planet don't have a widely recognised address system. In the US a lot of people, especially in rural areas, have to rely on PO boxes since their property was never systematically addressed.

"As you move into a more global economy and more people order and get goods delivered at a distance, you need a more specific address than 'the house with the red door across from the cathedral,'" Merry Law, President of the postal code research firm WorldVu, told MIT Technology Review

Researchers Demir and Raskar have a plan to provide those specific addresses. They programmed a deep-learning algorithm to scan satellite images for roads and then convert the roads' pixels into a network. Then, through gauging things like interconnectivity and density, the algorithm determines city centres and neighbourhoods. Once the program has the lay of the land, it divvies out labels for regions, roads, and addresses units.

The researchers compared their results to an unmapped suburban region and found that their system labelled more than 80 per cent of the populated portions, which they believe "significantly improved map coverage." They're working with the estimate that there are currently 4 billion people without widely recognised addresses. So a program that could automatically create addresses for 3.2 billion of those people would seemingly be a major advancement, leaving only 20 per cent to be done manually.

The paper mentions a different address-creation system developed by the organisation what3words, which assigns unique, arbitrary three-word addresses (like "dear.sign.blue" or "paper.taco.cloud") to small plots of land This system has already been applied in Mongolia and Turkey.

But these three-word addresses have nothing to do with the area or addresses around them. The researchers of the Facebook-MIT system believe their system is superior because, rather than addresses that are arbitrary and meaningless, their assigned addresses adhere to current roads and topology.

Their paper provides an example address: "715D.NE127.Dhule.MhIn." It's not especially evocative or memorable, but it is specific and would have patterns in common with the addresses just north, south, east, and west of it.

"If you have the address — let's say — 'parrot.failed.casino' and someone else has the address 'tables.chairs.television,' you have no idea if you are neighbours with that person," Ilke Demir, the Facebook researcher, told MIT Technology Review. "That's the whole point. We want addresses that people can relate intuitively."

Facebook did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on why the company is researching a system for creating and assigning new addresses.

Of course one Facebook researcher's work in this field doesn't mean that the company is diving into mapping and addresses. But we'll be watching to see if Facebook tries to digitally colonise the postal codes of developing countries.

[MIT Technology Review]

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