Yesterday this blog reported on the transfer of machine learning expert Blaise Agüera y Arcas from Microsoft to Google. Today we can report that Facebook is also taking an interest in this area, hiring artificial intelligence expert Yann LeCun to teach the company – and its systems – a new way of thinking.
LeCun, who previously worked as a professor at New York University, has spent 30 years as a leading researcher in the field and is quite a catch for the social media giant, for all its power and wealth. The job he has been brought in to do is perhaps the most far-reaching one to be undertaken at Facebook since its inception, as it could transform the way it functions at a deep level. Though users may not notice at first due to a lack of superficial changes, it may gradually become apparent that Facebook seems to have become more interesting, that users are starting to find themselves tagged in photos taken by strangers, and that they feel more inclined to buy from the businesses whose adverts they see; in short, users will see that Facebook seems to know more about them.
LeCun’s focus in on moving away from merely programming computers and towards teaching them. Though he stresses that, at present, the most brilliant computer minds have only a fraction of the capacity of the average animal’s, what they do have is the advantage of a very large and generally infallible memory. This means that a machine that is able to learn, even if it can’t do it in a very sophisticated way, can learn about far more individuals than a human being could hope to – billions, in fact. It can then take what might be described as a personal approach to interacting with them, analyzing all the data they put on Facebook themselves in order to better understand their interests and tastes, then adjusting their news feeds – both personal and advertorial – to cater to this.
The deep learning in which LeCun has specialized can also enable a computer to recognize faces, which is something that the previous generation of machines really struggled with. This means that Facebook will much more easily be able to track the movements and actions of its users by noting when they appear in other people’s pictures, even in the background. This intense focus may spook some users but they have adjusted to similar qualms in the past. It will certainly create some interesting opportunities for marketers.