Why Facebook Is Building Intelligent Machines

In last week’s newsletter about intelligent assistants, I didn’t mention Facebook’s fledgling initiative in this area. Unlike Siri, Google Now and Cortana, Facebook’s “M” project (currently in a private beta) won’t be baked into the operating system of your smartphone. Instead it will be a new feature inside Facebook Messenger, the company’s popular instant messenger app. I’ve been dismissive of Facebook Messenger in the recent past, because it’s far less sophisticated than similar apps in Asia – particularly China’s WeChat. But with M, Facebook is finally adding smarts to its messaging app. Not only that, M may turn out to be Facebook’s first ever “intelligent machine.”

Intelligent machine? Yes, that term is used by Facebook itself on the home page of its AI research lab: “In the long term, we seek to understand intelligence and make intelligent machines.” (emphasis mine) At first reading, this goal doesn’t seem consistent with Facebook’s mission to help people connect and share. What do intelligent machines have to do with connecting human beings? Quite a lot, if Facebook’s AI projects will have anything to do with it.

Facebook & AI

Facebook has two separate divisions dedicated to AI work. The Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research program (FAIR) is its research arm, while the Applied Machine Learning (AML) division is product-focused. The latter is already powering some of the Facebook user experience, according to AML director Joaquin Quiñonero Candela. At the company’s F8 developer conference in April, Candela noted that AI powers Facebook’s translation, photo image search and real-time video classification.

In a nutshell then, currently AI is being used to help filter and sort content on Facebook.

But there’s a big jump from doing that to conversing with intelligent machines, which is the aim of Facebook’s research division. Its director, Yann LeCun, told Fast Company that Facebook wants to teach machines “common sense.” To achieve that, it is building “natural language understanding for dialogue systems, which will be the basis of Facebook’s intelligent voice assistants.”

M: Facebook’s Prototype Intelligent Machine

As I mentioned above, M is an intelligent assistant program for Messenger. It’s being tested behind closed doors right now and Facebook hasn’t revealed when it will be widely released. But we get an idea of how it will operate from this Wired article:

…users will tap a small button at the bottom of the Messenger app to send a note to M, the same way they might message anyone on Facebook. M’s software will decode the natural language, ask followup questions in the message thread, and send updates as the task is completed.

That doesn’t sound much like an intelligent machine. But in a November 2015 blog post, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer explained that the company’s ambitions for M go well beyond mere conversation:

Unlike other machine-driven services, M takes things further: It can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items; arrange for gifts to be delivered to your loved ones; and book restaurant reservations, travel arrangements, appointments, and more.

We can deduce from this that Facebook’s intelligent machines won’t simply talk to us, they’ll do things for us. So that tells us more about how M – and future “intelligent machines” that Facebook develops – will fit into Facebook’s mission to connect people. The machines will be conduits between people, helping us make transactions and carrying out manual tasks.

Let’s say you want to buy a birthday present for your Mom. In the future Facebook, you’ll be able to ask M to do that for you. Possibly M will analyze all the shopping websites your Mom has visited recently (remember that Facebook tracks many of us via its login across a myriad of sites). Or maybe M will simply remember the time your Mom commented on your cousin’s post, mentioning offhand that she likes Ronan Keating. Turns out Keating has just released a new album, so M buys it for your mom on your behalf. That’s just one potential way M could do tasks for you in the near future. I don’t know how exactly it’ll play out, but one thing is for sure: Facebook isn’t short of (your) data to feed the AI machines.

It’s important to note that M is currently only half powered by AI. According to the Wired article, M is also powered by “a band of Facebook employees, dubbed M trainers, who will make sure that every request is answered.” So for those questions that M cannot answer itself, an M trainer will answer. Which of course enables the AI to learn the answer, so that next time it won’t need the trainer. Eventually the trainers will be redundant, when the AI knowledge base is large enough to answer practically everything.


FAIR only launched in December 2013, so it’s not even three years old. Since intelligent machines is a long-term goal for Facebook, we may not see the results of its research for many years. But its M prototype at least gives us a glimpse into why Facebook wants to build intelligent machines. Put simply, Facebook wants machines to automate tasks for its users. Just like every other form of automation we’re seeing – from driverless cars to factory robots.

In 2016, chatbots are a huge trend. But longer term, Facebook is looking beyond chat functionality. Facebook wants “machines” (which may simply be apps) to walk the talk, to carry out tasks for you. And preferably before Google, Amazon, Viv and others achieve the same functionality.

Perhaps the big test will be: which of Facebook, Google, Apple or Microsoft will be able to buy the best birthday present for your Mom? We’ll find out in five to ten years time!

4 thoughts on “Why Facebook Is Building Intelligent Machines”

  1. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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