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Facebook: AI research ‘not going fast enough’
Source: Drew Harwell

Facebook will dramatically accelerate its research into artificial intelligence, its chief AI scientist said Tuesday, in hopes of ensuring the social network doesn’t fall behind with the technology it will need to contend with internet rivals and police its gargantuan audience.

The world’s biggest social network said it would recruit high-profile engineers and expand its AI-research division to roughly 170 scientists and engineers across eight global offices, including Paris, Pittsburgh, Montreal, London and Tel Aviv. The expansion of the international labs and a series of new academic partnerships will be devoted to the study of robotics, virtual animation, learning machines and other forms of AI.

Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist and an early machine-learning architect, said the expanded research effort was pushed by Facebook leaders such as chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. “AI has become so central to the operations of companies like ours, that what our leadership has been telling us is: ‘Go faster. You’re not going fast enough,'” LeCun said.

Facebook’s international expansion and academic partnerships mimic the model used by many of AI’s biggest corporate players, which gives top researchers and engineers the freedom to teach classes, publish papers and split their time between academic and commercial pursuits.

LeCun said Facebook’s AI researchers will focus on the long-term pursuit of “machines that have some level of common sense” and learn “how the world works by observation, like young children do in the first few months of life.”

AI — the sweeping term for systems that train on lots of data, make decisions and improve without overt human control — is one of modern technology’s most competitive fields, with tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft grappling with firms in China and Europe for the top talent, applications and ideas. Google chief Sundar Pichai in January called AI “one of the most important things that humanity is working on” and “more profound than electricity or fire.”

While Facebook’s AI rivals have developed automated voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or spearheaded breakthroughs in gaming, robotics or self-driving cars, the social network has devoted much of its AI engineering to analysis of images, video and text — facial recognition, language translation and detection of unwanted content or harmful comments.

A typical user can often miss the subtle ways Facebook’s AI influences their actions, including suggested photo tags, algorithmically decided News Feeds, friend recommendations, spam blocking and ad targeting.

AI is a critical battlefield for Facebook, with Zuckerberg pledging to Congress and investors that automated tools would help solve some of the company’s thorniest problems, including extremist propaganda, misinformation and hate speech. The company says AI has boosted its ability to monitor the social network’s 2 billion users, but it still relies heavily on human moderators and, as LeCun noted, “works not so well with false news.”

The company on Tuesday announced new partnerships in Pittsburgh, Seattle, London and Facebook’s hometown, Menlo Park, Calif., bringing on specialists in developing AI to scour vast image libraries, process varying languages and analyze human motion.

Facebook’s global expansion has allowed the company to secure a seat near top universities, research institutes and other “talent factories” where AI researchers and academics are currently at work.


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