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Rachel Metz

A View from Rachel Metz

Facebook AI Software Learns and Answers Questions

Software able to read a synopsis of Lord of the Rings and answer questions about it could beef up Facebook search.

  • March 26, 2015

Facebook is working on artificial intelligence software that can process text and then answer questions about it. The effort could eventually lead to anything from better search on Facebook itself to more accurate and useful personal assistant software.

The social network’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, introduced the software, called Memory Network, in a talk at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Francisco on Thursday. He demonstrated how the software could acquire knowledge from text by showing how it was fed a super-simple synopsis of the book “Lord of the Rings”, in the form of phrases including “Bilbo travelled to the cave” and “Gollum dropped the ring there.” After that, the software could answer questions that required following the flow of events in the text, such as “Where is the ring?” and “Where is Frodo now?”

Extracting information from text and figuring out how to put it together into brand-new facts is a difficult task for computers to do–as Shroepfer noted in his demo, it requires the machine to understand the relationships between objects over time.

Facebook is making this work with a new twist on a recently-popular approach to machine learning called deep learning (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Deep Learning”). That technique involves using networks of crude “neurons” to process data. Facebook added what Schroepfer described as a “multimillion-slot memory system” to such a network, which functions essentially as a short-term memory where facts can be stored and processed.

Facebook set up a research group dedicated to deep learning in 2013 (see “Facebook Launches Advanced AI Effort”). Like similar groups at Google and elsewhere, it has largely focused on using the technique to make software able to figure out what’s going on in images. In his talk, Schroepfer also showed results from a project in which his researchers taught deep learning software to classify 487 different sports from looking at video clips. He said it is good enough to differentiate between figure skating, speed skating, artistic roller skating, and ice hockey.

That such an apparently easy task is a major achievement for software is a reminder that even deep learning software is far from very intelligent. Such software could be valuable, though. If applied to the many videos uploaded to Facebook, it might make it possible to, say, show you ads that are closely targeted to what you’re watching.

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