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Maybe all these AI researchers Facebook wants to hire can fix its toxic News Feed

July 18th, 2018 at 6:29 PM
Facebook AI Research

Facebook has found itself plenty bruised in the press and generally beaten up this week over its handling of content, its News Feed and the like, but the social networking giant is nevertheless pressing full steam ahead on more cerebral and less high-profile aspects of its business. Specifically, on areas that could pay big dividends down the line, things like the company’s investment in artificial intelligence, in academic research and in aggressively recruiting new research talent.

To that last point, Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun has spelled out in an official blog post — as well as in a briefing for reporters — a flurry of steps the company is taking to expand its AI research. Steps that include hiring almost half a dozen top computer scientists and opening new research labs.

Among the company’s moves are opening an AI research lab in Pittsburgh and continuing to staff up Facebook offices globally with fresh academic talent as part of a race to keep Facebook’s AI research group — now up to about 170 people — on the cutting edge.

“Part of our commitment to academia and local ecosystems is also investing in them and providing tools they need to thrive,” LeCun notes. “As we’ve done in the past, we plan to support a number of PhD students who will conduct research in collaboration with researchers at (Facebook AI Research) and their university faculty, or on topics of interest to FAIR under the direction of their faculty. We’re also providing millions in funding to the schools from which we’ve hired. This allows the professors to spend less time fundraising for their labs and more time working with their students.”

LeCun announced the hire of Caernegie Mellon professor Jessica Hodgins, who’s going to lead a new Facebook AI lab in Pittsburgh focused on robotics, lifelong learning systems that learn continuously over years, teaching machines to reason, and AI in support of creativity. Joining her is another leading robotics expert, Carnegie Mellon professor Abhinav Gupta.

Facebook has likewise added similar research talent in Seattle, London and in Menlo Park, part of the scramble to fulfill what LeCun described as a mandate from the top. Expanding the ranks of Facebook’s AI research talent is in direct response to Mark Zuckerberg’s thinking these efforts within the company aren’t yet where they need to be — “You’re not going fast enough,” is how LeCun recounted the directive from Facebook’s founder.

In all, Facebook announced five new hires, all of whom are professors and will continue as faculty part-time.

Cornell computer science professor Bart Selman told the AP this is all a good idea for Facebook, taking on projects not directly related to its core business. Sort of like what Google is trying with self-driving cars.

AI is already deeply embedded into the way the typical user interacts with Facebook, in subtle ways that include friend recommendations and in the algorithmically ranked News Feed. You’d think that some of the abundance of research coming out of Facebook’s academic pursuits could maybe even end up helping fix what’s arguably the centerpiece of the big blue app — its News Feed — maybe even staunching some of the spillover of users from it to Instagram. If so, it would have been a wise investment indeed.

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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